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Citizen police academies: do they just entertain?

In the past two decades, citizen police academies (CPAs) have become increasingly popular among American police agencies of all sizes. Departments design CPA programs to provide participants with a basic idea of crime and policing in their communities. Several authors have suggested that CPAs help improve public relations and increase partnerships between citizens and the police. (1) Despite such suggestions, little research supports or disproves the impact of CPA programs on participants. Consequently, whether police departments are getting the most out of their citizen academies remains unclear.

HISTORY OF CPA PROGRAMS

At the heart of the philosophy of community policing is collaboration, communication, and interaction between the police and the community they serve. (2) Law enforcement agencies across the United States have experimented with a wide variety of programs in an effort to build cooperation and facilitate communication with local citizens. Such efforts will foster new alliances between the police and the public, in part, by removing some of the mystery and uncertainty that surrounds police work. Many departments have developed and implemented CPAs.

CPAs, condensed versions of regular police academies, first were developed in the United Kingdom in 1977 for the purpose of acquainting citizens with the nature and structure of policing. (3) The United States first tried the idea when the Orlando, Florida, Police Department launched their CPA in 1985. (4) Graduates obtain a window into the organization and get a view of the people who have the responsibility of protecting their neighborhoods. CPAs typically combine classroom lectures, demonstrations, and, in many cases, a "ride along" with a police officer to educate participants. Graduates usually share their experiences and beliefs with their friends and neighbors. In this way, the sponsoring department fosters stronger citizen commitment and builds community support beyond the small number of actual program participants.

CPA CURRICULUM

Academy curriculum serves a twofold purpose. First, the curriculum introduces students to police operations and demonstrates the complex nature of policing. Students receive an overview of the organization of the sponsoring agency and the crime issues that create the most problems in the community. They have an opportunity to understand the rationale police officers use to handle certain situations. Through their participation, graduates may begin to view an officer's conduct as being driven by acceptable motives (e.g., officer safety considerations), rather than inappropriate biases (e.g., a citizen's race/ethnicity, sex, or age). This observation allows citizens to develop an appreciation for the challenges associated with policing their community.

A second, and perhaps less obvious, purpose of the CPA curriculum is to foster a sense of goodwill. Students become acquainted with members of the department and have an opportunity to come into contact with the police through positive interactions. Agencies hope that CPA graduates will have a better appreciation for the difficult nature of policing as an occupation, making them more empathetic and understanding toward the agency. Additionally, after completing the program, departments hope that graduates serve as advocates for the police within the community.

Despite the prevalence of CPA programs, little is known about the ways in which they affect a citizen's beliefs and perceptions. Much of what has been written about CPAs has consisted of basic descriptions of specific programs. (5) Average CPA programs usually last 11 weeks, meet once a week for 3 hours, serve 27 students per session, and cost $3,500 (including personnel expenses). (6) A recent survey found that 45 percent of municipal police and county sheriffs departments operated some form of a CPA. Most of these academies typically dealt with general law enforcement information, although some agencies implemented special academies aimed at youth or senior citizens. (7) Although CPAs are more common in larger departments, agencies of all sizes have used these programs.

LANSING POLICE DEPARTMENT'S EXPERIENCE

In the early 1990s, the Lansing, Michigan, Police Department (LPD) struggled to establish community policing as its way of doing business. Like many cities that have tried to engage in cooperative problem solving, the department found that Lansing's residents hesitated to join forces with them. Also, through more extensive interaction with citizens, officers realized that the public lacked a basic understanding about the motivation and justification behind many police procedures. During the same time period, LPD officers were involved in two shootings, which heightened public scrutiny of the police and raised levels of distrust within some segments of the population. The department anxiously sought ways to improve their strained relationship with the community.

Program Development

Against this backdrop, the LPD began its CPA with three goals in mind. Specifically, the agency decided to--

1) create a network of citizens who have a basic understanding about the workings of the department and the complexity of police work;

2) give CPA students the information they need to better evaluate media reports about police performance; and

3) increase the likelihood that CPA graduates will work with officers to identify and solve neighborhood problems.

The agency anticipated that citizens who were better informed about the department and the complex nature of policing would be sympathetic and supportive toward the agency. They also hoped that CPA graduates would vocalize their experiences and share the knowledge they gained with others in the community.

The Lansing CPA classes meet one night a week for 10 consecutive weeks for a total of 30 hours. They cover such topics as the history of the department, an overview of the 911 center, patrol operations, the detective bureau, the firearms training simulator, use-of-force policy, detention, the special tactics and rescue team, crime scene investigation, and domestic violence response. The department held its first academy in the spring of 1996. Since then, they have held two CPA sessions each year. An LPD officer recruited the initial academy class from Neighborhood Watch coordinators, and the department has advertised subsequent classes in the local paper.

Program Evaluation

The Lansing Police Department attempted to establish whether it was meeting the goals established for its CPA program. To do so, the agency developed and administered a survey to all of its CPA graduates. The LPD mailed questionnaires to all of its 134 CPA graduates. Seventy-one percent (68 women and 24 men) of the graduates responded. Through this process, the department discovered a shortcoming in its academy program that prevented it from reaching its true potential. The findings suggested that, while sponsoring a CPA may prove useful for improving police-community relations and increasing partnerships, agencies can take additional steps to increase the impact of citizen academies. The following summary provides the key survey findings:

* CPA participation increased knowledge of crime, safety, and community policing in Lansing: Respondents reported an increased awareness of crime and safety issues (increased awareness reported by 87 percent), police activities (increased awareness reported by 91 percent), and police-initiated problem-solving efforts (increased awareness reported by 87 percent) as a result of attending the CPA.

* Involvement as a volunteer increased modestly: Fifty-six percent of the respondents had volunteered their time to support the department's crime and safety programs prior to attending the CPA. Sixty-three percent reported such involvement after graduation.

* Academy participation modified how graduates viewed media reports of the police: Seventy-four percent of the respondents advised that they viewed media reports about the police department differently after attending the academy. One student captured the essence of this response by stating, "I better understand the complex nature of policing; I now have more of a sense of what is not being reported by the media." These findings suggest that, to a large degree, LPD is meeting its goal of providing CPA students the information they need to evaluate media reports about the police.

* Respondents had positive views of both the agency and the program: Twenty-three percent of the respondents had a very positive view of the LPD before attending the academy. After completing the academy, 81 percent of the respondents reported that they viewed the department very positively. Only five of the respondents stated that they started the academy with a negative opinion of the police department. After completing the academy, four of these five had a positive or very positive view of the department. All of the respondents reported having a positive or very positive impression of the CPA.

* Program participation modified citizens' views of the department: Sixty-seven percent of the respondents stated that they viewed the police department differently as a result of their CPA experience. Those reporting changes in their views overwhelmingly indicated that such changes were in a positive direction.

* Respondents shared their experiences with others: Nearly all of the respondents (98 percent) reported that they had told others about the CPA. Information most commonly was shared with family members, friends, neighbors, and coworkers. When respondents were asked who they had told about the CPA, common answers included, "Anybody who would listen," "Everyone I know," and "People who complain or say bad things about the police."

* Many respondents reported an increase in their willingness to volunteer and collaborate: Approximately one-third (34 percent) of graduates stated that they were more willing to volunteer their time to support LPD programs as a result of their CPA experience. The vast majority of respondents (94 percent) stated that, as a result of participating in the CPA, they now are more likely to work with the police to solve a problem.

These results suggested that the LPD's CPA was meeting its goals and that the academy could have more of an impact if the department recruited students from different segments of the community. If the results experienced by the LPD are typical, citizens who participate in CPA programs enter with positive views of the police. Programs tend to strengthen citizens' views, but few participants began the LPD program with negative perceptions. Furthermore, many of the LPD respondents already were volunteering their time in support of department-initiated crime prevention and safety initiatives. Even if these citizens had not participated in the CPA program, they likely would hold a positive view of the agency, would volunteer to support police programs, and would be supporters of the department within the community. The agency realized the need to work harder to attract academy participants who did not already hold the organization in high regard.

Often, agencies exclude persons with a criminal history from participating in CPA programs. While departments should run criminal history checks on prospective academy participants, agencies may want to reconsider the absolute exclusion of citizens with a criminal history. Academy applicants who have committed only minor offenses or have not been involved in criminal activity for some period of time might be able to bring important perspectives to the program. If departments want to strengthen ties with segments of the community that historically have been weak, they should avoid adopting policies that exclude large segments of the population.

The findings also suggested that the department needed to do more to capitalize on the willingness of graduates to volunteer and collaborate with the agency. One in three respondents reported that they were more willing to volunteer their time to support police programs after completing the academy. Nearly all of the respondents indicated that, after graduating from the academy, they were more willing to help the police solve neighborhood problems. Despite these findings, only a modest increase in the actual level of student involvement occurred.

The LPD has begun to take steps to recruit their detractors to join the CPA. Such efforts include providing CPA applications to those who contact internal affairs about minor complaints or misunderstandings, which stem from a lack of knowledge about police procedures; encouraging leaders in minority communities to attend the academy; and discussing the CPA on a radio talk show that has a large minority audience. Other suggestions include conducting a "mini-academy" for leaders in the minority community and encouraging them to invite others to attend the full CPA, hosting a youth academy targeting teenagers, and encouraging officers to promote the CPA to those they meet while on patrol.

CONCLUSION

Reaching out to citizens who are distrustful or skeptical of law enforcement and inviting them to take a closer look at police operations can prove intimidating and even unpleasant, but the rewards for doing so may be worth the effort. For agencies hoping to strengthen community alliances, the challenge for the future is to begin including a broader range of the public in their citizen police academy programs. Every department can identify groups within their community with which they have a history of misunderstandings and conflict. Departments should seek to draw academy participants from this portion of the community. Agencies need to improve relationships with those citizens who mistrust or feel alienated from their police, which is especially important if an agency hopes to succeed in carrying out community policing. CPAs can further community policing goals by increasing understanding, trust, and dialogue with members of the community who historically have been at odds with the police. CPA programs rep resent one mechanism that agencies can use to realize their community-policing objectives.

Endnotes

(1.) For descriptive accounts of CPA programs, see Giant A. Aryani, Terry D. Garrett, and Carl L. Alsabrook, "Citizen Police Academy: Success Through Community Partnership," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, May 2000,16-21; Ellen G. Cohn, "The Citizen Police Academy: A Recipe for Improving Police-Community Relations," Journal of Criminal Justice 24 (1996): 265-271; Ronald E. Ferguson, "The Citizen Police Academy," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, September 1985: 5-7; Martin Alan Greenberg, "Citizen Police Academies," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, August 1991: 10-13.

(2.) Robert Trojanowicz, Victor E. Kappeler, Larry K. Gaines, and Bonnie Bucqueroux, Community Policing: A Contemporary Perspective (Cincinnati, OH: Anderson, 1998).

(3.) Ronald E. Ferguson, "The Citizen Police Academy," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, September 1985, 5-7.

(4.) Ellen G. Cohn, "The Citizen Police Academy: A Recipe for Improving Police-Community Relations," Journal of Criminal Justice 24 (1996): 265-271.

(5.) Several articles have appeared in the Law Enforcement Bulletin and other trade publications. In addition, innovative approaches to CPAs have been described in the Community Policing Exchange (http://www.communitypolicing.org).

(6.) Janice Hilson, "Citizen Police Academies," TELEMASP Bulletin 1(2) (1994): 1-7.

(7.) Vic W. Bumphus, Larry K. Gaines, and Curtis R. Blakely "Citizen Police Academies: Observing Goals, Objectives, and Recent Trends," American Journal of Criminal Justice 24(1) (1991): 67-79.

RELATED ARTICLE: Attendees' Comments

"I have a much deeper understanding of all the complexities of the job and department."

"I understand much more fully the hows and whys behind what the officers do. I had no idea!"

"Officers walk a fine line between performing duties under difficult circumstances and behaving in a manner that results in public approval."

"I was uninformed before and basically a 'conscientious objector' against violence. Now, I understand how much control and restraint the officers have in respect to their own actions and that the different levels of force allow for more control of their own actions."

"I can see the different situations that police have to go through, being careful to take everything into consideration, which we as civilians don't always see or realize...."

Detective Bonello serves with the Lansing, Michigan, Police Department.

Dr. Schafer instructs at the Center for the Study of Crime, Delinquency, and Corrections at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois.
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Title Annotation:related article: Attendees' Comments; community policing
Author:Schafer, Joseph A.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2002
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