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Citizen Police Academy: Teaching the Public About Use of Force

Ask any police officer how well the public understands what we do and the typical answer is “they don’t have a clue.” And when it comes to use of force issues, it’s even worse.

For an American public smothered in media induced nonsense, police work is Wesley Snipes fighting off a swarm of attackers with ballet smooth precision or crime scene technicians using esoteric science to capture a mysterious serial killer. Given that context, none of us should be surprised when the public expects police officers to gently restrain a violent and out of control drug addict or to shoot the gun out of the hand of a robbery suspect.

When serious force incidents do occur, police officials are left trying to explain the real dynamics of these incidents to a skeptical public who are all too often ready to accept the easy explanation of police brutality and incompetence.

Most departments recognize the problem. And a lot of police leaders have taken steps to educate their community. One of the most popular approaches is the Citizen Police Academy (CPA). First organized in Orlando, FL in 1994, CPAs have spread across the country like wild fire and it would be difficult today to find a department of significant size that has not held citizen academies.

Citizen Police Academies work. The Cincinnati Police Academy has been involved in running CPAs for the past several years and has graduated over 750 citizens.

My original impression of a Citizen Police Academy was a gathering of supporters organized to form a police cheerleading squad. I was wrong. While police cheerleaders do show up in CPAs, every class has a sizable contingent of those anxious to challenge the instructors. And there is very little more gratifying than having one of that group reach a clearer understanding of the challenges of police work.

Despite the successes, CPAs offer still untapped potential to influence community opinion and there are several steps departments can take to make CPAs a more effective educational vehicle.

Widen the Net

In the late-1990s, following the high profile in-custody death of a mental patient, Cincinnati law enforcement and the local mental health community engaged in a bout of antagonistic finger pointing. From that rocky start developed a relationship that has won praise and recognition from even the harshest police critics.

As police officials and mental health professionals sat down to explore their differences, the gulf between them became obvious. Searching for a way to bridge the gap, the idea of a Citizens Police Academy designed for mental health professionals was born. The hook to bring these professionals into the academy was continuing education credit hours (CEUs) arranged for by the local Mental Health Association.

Social workers, more poorly paid than even the police, were enthusiastic about the opportunity to get some free CEUs and a lot of them found the training more interesting than another session on the biochemistry of manic depression. Almost to a person, these workers were people who, at best, had lukewarm attitudes toward the police. While not everyone was a convert, the feedback from participants almost universally speaks to significant changes in attitude.

Required CEUs are a feature of the professional life of many occupations. Ministers, attorneys, schoolteachers, drug counselors and many others could be drawn into citizen academies with the incentive of CEUs.

Most police agencies organizing citizen academies have used the Field of Dreams marketing model. That is, we organize it and—“they will come.” Holding the CPA within the agency certainly makes it more convenient for the police department. The necessary props, AV equipment, and the myriad of details involved in putting on a CPA are definitely easier to handle in-house. And there is something to be said about bringing citizens into a police facility that helps to give them a realistic look at policing.

But it may also be that by holding the CPA at a department facility we are missing the chance to reach some folks that, for a variety of reasons, are unlikely to attend a program at a police installation. Taking the CPA on the road would be another way of broadening the audience. Churches, corporations, community colleges, hospitals, senior centers, and service clubs are only a few of the potential partners out there that could assist.

Target Opinion Leaders

Within the first few sessions at a CPA, someone will inevitably comment “The Mayor” or “City Council” or “the media” should be here. And everyone agrees. The potential benefit in having these folks participate is obvious. But short of kidnapping, getting them there is sometimes a difficult proposition.

A harsh fact of political life is that candidates for office are much more open to experiences like the CPA than current elected officials. Two of the current nine members of Cincinnati City Council are graduates of the Citizen Police Academy. Interestingly, both attended well before their public emergence as political candidates. Both recognized that police issues are a hot button in local politics and both viewed their attendance at the CPA as an important learning experience.

While Council Members and other elected officials are unlikely to attend a CPA, they are often willing and sometimes enthusiastic about sending one of their aides. Local officials are forced to grapple with issues from sewers to garbage to safety to snow removal and everything in-between. They often count on their staff members to provide the technical knowledge they need for effective decision-making. Police departments, through CPAs, can provide a knowledge base on policing for these behind the scenes assistants.

Attracting media people to a CPA is also a challenge. The exception tends to be those reporters who cover a crime beat and need to cultivate a good working relationship with the police. They are often enthusiastic about a CPA storyline in which a disgruntled citizen learns “the reality of life on the beat.”

But the real purpose in having media members in a CPA is not a story about the CPA. The primary goal is have them develop a deeper understanding of police issues they can apply in their day-to-day work. After a police shooting in 2002, one our CPA television reporter graduates was doing the mandatory interview with outraged friends of the deceased. The friend’s interview consisted of a loud complaint that the cops should have shot the suspect in the leg.

In the stand-up at the end the piece, the reporter provided a 15-second summary on the impact of stress on precision shooting and the unrealistic expectation that police could safely shoot someone in the leg. This was education of use of force that reached an audience unlikely to be matched in years of CPAs.

Attack the Race Divide

Race relations remains one of the most difficult problems in our country and nowhere is racial tension more clearly felt than in the interactions between police officers and minority citizens. As citizens in Benton Harbor and Cincinnati learned first hand, force incidents can explode into civil disorder leaving increased violence, racial distrust, and damaged police-community relations in its wake.

Police leaders across the country have recognized the dangers that lie in this racial divide and are searching for ways to bridge the gap between their officers and the communities they serve. Citizen Police Academies can be an integral part of this effort.

By welcoming minority citizens into the academy and opening themselves to some difficult discussion on issues like racial profiling and use of force, police will be making an investment in a stronger community relationship that will withstand the corrosive effect of a high profile incident. Partnerships with churches, minority fraternal organizations, and service organizations can result in a Citizen Police Academy program with real potential to narrow the racial gap.

Use of Force… Show, Don’t Tell

The major goal for citizens in the program is to develop a deeper understanding of the dynamics of use of force decision-making. Force training systems like the FATS system are ideal for this purpose. The newer technology has moved way beyond the “shoot or don’t shoot” programs of the past with many of the systems offering scenarios that respond to verbal commands, batons, Tasers, chemical irritant and firearms. The systems also measure reaction time, track the location of each shot fired by a student, and offer replay for critique purposes.

There is little that is more illuminating to citizens than to put on a gun belt and be thrust into the middle of a force scenario. Most quickly gain an appreciation for the complexity of force decision-making. In this brief exposure, there are two points trainers should emphasize. The first is an understanding of the force decision-making process.

Why did you use chemical irritant? Why did you shoot? Why didn’t you shoot? Forcing the students to articulate their reasoning provides the citizen a glimpse into the difficulty of the force decisions on the street. Discussion of the legal and tactical issues in force situations easily follows.

The second crucial point is experiencing the deterioration of physical skills under stress. The FATS system, like most of its counterparts, allows students to practice shooting the laser gun at a computerized target. Almost all participants, particularly from a short distance and with no recoil to deal with, quickly become fairly proficient and confident in their ability to hit the target. However, under the stress of a scenario, those attempting to use batons will drop them.

If they choose chemical irritant, they are likely to spray themselves. And drawing the firearm from a secured holster becomes an adventure. Those who manage to get the firearm free from the holster will usually spray shots in all directions and the students are usually both surprised and disappointed at their performance. These are powerful lessons on the impact of stress that cannot be duplicated with a lecture on use of force.

For a lot of departments, organizing a Citizen Police Academy is a nice public relations gesture and not much more. Yet properly structured and targeted programs can become a powerful teaching tool increasing community understanding of force issues and helping to bridge the racial divide between police and minority citizens. The time and effort spent in a well-designed CPA may be one of the best investments police leaders can make.

Howard Rahtz is a lieutenant with the Cincinnati, OH Police, currently assigned to the Police Academy. He is also the editor of ILEETA’s Use of Force Journal ( He may be reached at Photos courtesy of Jim Weiss and Mickey Davis.

Published in Law and Order, Apr 2005

Rating : Not Yet Rated

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