Why Citizens Academies are Good for Policing ...and How to Stand One Up

A Citizens Police Academy has the potential—when well planned and well executed—to positively impact police-community relations. Here are a couple of observations I've had in attending a handful of CPAs.

Doug Wyllie Crop Headshot

POLICE Magazine Contributing Web Editor Doug Wyllie volunteering for the role of crash test dummy during the instruction of compliance holds in the mat room of the San Francisco Police Academy during the SFPD CPA #27 in spring of 2017.POLICE Magazine Contributing Web Editor Doug Wyllie volunteering for the role of crash test dummy during the instruction of compliance holds in the mat room of the San Francisco Police Academy during the SFPD CPA #27 in spring of 2017.Image courtesy of Doug Wyllie / Facebook.

I've been writing for—and about—law enforcement for eleven and a half years. Before beginning this journey as a police scribe, I made the conscious commitment to become a student of the profession. I read everything I could get my hands on and I sought out hands-on training.

My position in the law enforcement universe has afforded me the opportunity to participate in countless hours of law enforcement training. I've spent hundreds of hours in the classroom. I've also had some pretty unique hands-on training—everything from EVOC to DT to firearms. I've been in the stack on an active shooter response force-on-force drill. I've participated in K-9 suspect search training. I've run the confidence course at a local police academy (which nearly killed me, by the way).

I'm unbelievably blessed to have had these incredible training experiences. They not only help me to be better at my job—writing about law enforcement—but they remind me of the fact that there is so much that I still don't know. I learn something new at every turn— and at every turn I wish more civilians could get the instruction I've had.

This is why I am a strong advocate of Citizen Police Academies (CPAs). Yes, they require agency resources—human and financial—but more often than not these investments pay high dividends. 

Here are some thoughts on the benefits of—and best practices for—standing up a CPA.

Know Your Why

First and foremost, an agency must have a very clear understanding of what it wants to accomplish with standing up and running a Citizens Police Academy. It is a great way to better connect with the community. It can help to correct misconceptions among citizens about policing they "learned" through television and movies.

A Citizens Police Academy can help educate the community about the operations of a law enforcement agency. It can generate interest in young people who might be thinking about a career in law enforcement in the long term.

However, a CPA is not a very effective venue to change the minds of individuals who are upset over a recent high-profile event on the front page of your local newspaper. That's the job of the chief, the PIO, and the legal process.

Know your why.

Get it Right

Any Citizens Police Academy has to be meticulously planned. A CPA has the potential—when well planned and well executed—to positively impact police-community relations. Here are a couple of observations I've had in attending a handful of Citizens Police Academies.

Be reasonable about duration. People who volunteer their time to attend a Citizens Police Academy are inherently curious and willing to give their time to have that curiosity satisfied—but everyone has their limit. Six sessions of three hours or nine sessions of two hours—or somewhere in between—is probably the sweet spot.

Most of the academies I've attended have been eight two-hour sessions. One had an elective session that lasted six additional hours on a Saturday during which attendees were given the opportunity to participate in live fire firearms training. This is next-level stuff, and not necessarily for the agency holding its first-ever CPA.

Be thoughtful about curriculum. If you have an academy of roughly 18-20 hours as suggested above, you need to be really circumspect about the curriculum. There's no way you can cover all the ground you'd want to, so be selective about the subjects to be covered, and much of that decision-making process will be determined by what's seen by your local press, politicians, and public to be most meaningful to them. Here's a short list of ideas:

  • Department History: Begin with at least some time spent on the history of the department, including its inception, significant milestones, as well as full disclosure of any perceived blemishes on its past. Appearing to sweep under the rug an incident—however many years have passed—will undermine the integrity of everything that follows. Plainly own your past, and clearly articulate your future.
  • Use of Force: Included in this block should be agency policy, training standards, applicable case law, a case study of an appropriate use-of-force incident (preferably on video). A great option for additional training would be held at the academy, with time in the mat room as well as the force options simulator.
  • Community Policing: At its core, a CPA is community policing 101. Those who are in your classroom for the CPA are willing participants in that process. Give them the tools and resources to expand your community policing efforts with information about National Night Out, Shop-with-a-Cop, or anything else you do to connect with the people of your city or town.
  • Equipment Display: A lot of people who have interest in policing also have significant interest in the gear officers use in their daily duties. One CPA I attended had all the students assemble at an outdoor location where a mobile command post, an armored vehicle, an array of weapons, and ballistics protection were on display. The instructors that day were all SWAT or command staff, and each was there merely to answer citizen questions—there were no prepared remarks.
  • Career Day: Have representatives from all your specialized units come in for a brief firsthand explanation of their assignments followed by a quick Q&A. Bring in a K-9 and handler, a crime scene analyst, a 911 call taker, a SWAT operator, a school resource officer, as well as someone from bike patrol, marine patrol, and motor patrol. This should be a cadre of volunteers who have been well vetted.

Choose your instructors wisely. In an ideal world, the officers who teach most of your Citizens Police Academy will be individuals who have a role with academy, in-service, or FTO training. There should also be a handful of command staff who are tasked on a daily basis with implementing policy. As was indicated above, you will also probably need to have individuals who are not on the training team present at least some content. Give them any necessary training to present their content in a way that reflects well on your agency.

The Right Audience

The best CPAs consist of people from every segment of your population. You will inevitably have folks who are ardent supporters of law enforcement, but you also want people in the room who are skeptical of police—or are even actively hostile, as long as they don't completely hijack the proceedings.

Racial and ethnic diversity should reflect what you see in the neighborhoods you patrol. In my experience, you'll also get significant interest from young people interested in pursuing the profession, as well as retirees who just want to fill their time with something new and unknown.

Consider including a member of your local media or a local religious leader as an invitee—these people have the ability to amplify the influence of your academy.

Final Words

Fundamentally, the purpose of a Citizens Police Academy is three-fold:

  1. Build stronger relationships with the community through openness and transparency about how police officers go about protecting the citizens they serve.
  2. Educate the public on the challenges that officers face and how they solve difficult problems—oftentimes in a split second while under extreme stress.
  3. Give law enforcement agencies the opportunity to hear from their community what they feel is important to them with regard to their police services.

There are certainly other benefits, but if you go into the creation of a CPA with those goals in mind, and you execute a good plan to achieve them, you will almost certainly be successful.

About the Author
Doug Wyllie Crop Headshot
Contributing Editor
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