Brookhaven, GA, August 14, 2015 – by Riley O’Connor, Brookhaven Resident and Citizen’s Police Academy Grad – The Brookhaven Police Department recently completed its first Citizen’s Police Academy. Starting in late April, classes were held once a week for three hours over the span of ten weeks. Twenty five Brookhaven neighbors were in attendance as a class made up of a variety of people that all had the common interest in learning about our police department.
I was one of those citizens, and this class proved to be a worthy experience. I felt then, and I feel now, that such a citizen’s police academy is important, not only for the citizens, but also for the law enforcement officers. We learned about the Brookhaven police department’s operations, the training which their officers receive, the skills and challenges of police work in the our city. Most of the classes were held at the Brookhaven Police Department headquarters on Buford Highway. Each evening class typically covered two subjects.
The topics covered:
- Opening Session – Background of Brookhaven PD / DUI
- Communications / 911 – Overview and visit to the Chattcom facility
- Domestic Violence – Support for crime victims, victims’ rights, due process
- Court Services – Criminal Justice System, Constitutional Law / Community Oriented Policing
- Criminal Investigations / Crime Scene Investigation
- Traffic Enforcement / K9 Units
- Gangs / Narcotics
- Uniform Division – Ride along with uniform officers on patrol
- Firearms and Use of Force
- Simulator – Shoot / Don’t Shoot
- Gun Range
Admission to this Citizen’s Academy was only after a criminal background check, and the size of the class was limited to the available space in the training room of the Department. I’ve lived in Brookhaven since 1978, and I’ve always felt that I knew a lot of people in our fair city, yet the 2015 Inaugural Class was comprised of Brookhaven residents that I had never met before. We were an interesting group of individuals who resided in different parts of Brookhaven and were in different walks of life. Several of us were retired.
So, why participate in such an experience? The classes were interesting, but the are no tangible benefits except knowledge and understanding. No uniforms and badges, no arrest powers. No handing out citations. Not even an autographed photo of Don Knotts in his role as Deputy Barney Fife. Neither was there, as one of my classmates put it, any future possibility for “mulligans” with the police department. In fact, the opposite is quite possibly the case. After participating in this class series, we should know better.
Early on, there was a brief discussion about a rumor which said that at the formation of the City of Brookhaven, a number of the newly minted City elites had been given a special “coin”. These special coins allowed the select to simply show them to a police officer and to be magically given a “Get out of Jail Free” experience. One of the command officers pointedly talked about that rumor to our group.
The Brookhaven Police Department clearly is not predisposed to just letting them go. His words were to the effect of “Yeah, I’ve heard about some special coin, but, as far as I’m concerned, if someone needs to go to jail, they’re going to jail.” Over the intervening weeks of meeting a large number of Brookhaven police officers on an up-close and personal basis, I can say that this was a common attitude. The Brookhaven Police motto is “Courage, Honor, Integrity”. They live it.
What did the class offer? An inside view, up close and personal, with the daily life of our law enforcement officers. A view of the unique stresses and challenges which each faces on a day to day basis.
Present but unseen
So much of police life deals with the present-but-unseen. Things that are so seamless as to be invisible.
For example, our United States Constitution is a constant presence. So is the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to our Constitution. The Law, which comes from those documents, is there, too. Enforcement of the Law is the responsibility of police departments such as Brookhaven’s.
Also present but unseen is the presence of television and movies. Many of our popular expectations are driven by fictional television programs. You find yourself being the victim of a minor crime, and wonder why no fingerprints were taken. And believe that an arrest and conviction will be made within 60 minutes. Less time for commercials. It usually doesn’t work that way.
So, too, an uniform officer’s life is not like a 30-minute episode of “Cops”. It is mostly the mundane highlighted by moments of high speed. And, the shift is not over until the paperwork is done. So, more than a little of our classroom experience helped us realize that police work doesn’t work the way that it is portrayed on TV.
Our law enforcement officers enjoy an unique social contract with those that they protect. We grant them unusual powers in exchange for the protection of our lives and property. We justifiably expect that our police will be held to higher standards.
You don’t have to look very far to see that police departments in the United States are in the middle of a terrible image problem.
One thing that has changed is that we, as a people, now have far greater access to information. With a Smartphone in every hand, we now see things that previously were unseen. We may see something, but not necessarily understand. Those images need to be put into some sort of context, into a framework of what happened and why. And context can often be hard to detect; knowing law enforcement’s way of life helps to see the unseen.
The Citizen’s Police Academy is part of a larger effort by law enforcement to reach out and establish strong ties with the community that they serve. And in those classes, there are different people, taking the time to see and understand police work. So it was with the Brookhaven Police Department program. Like other such academies around the United States, the Brookhaven department quietly laid out what it is that a police department does. At the end of the series of classes, I have developed a greater sense of the life of a law enforcement officer. There are unique stresses and strains. And that there are also a quiet series of thoughtful changes underway that will result in better policing.
At the end of the class series, we had a final graduation banquet at our training classroom. It was not a formal affair, just another moment of contact with Brookhaven’s finest. Everybody brought food, and there was way too much, but it was an interesting evening. It was a moment of casual conversation with those who had participated in the class and those who had taught the classes. And it was a final opportunity to meet with the Department before we hit the streets. For brief moments, we had been given a look inside their lives.
Each class member could bring two guests, and I brought my wife and a good friend. This friend later remembered the evening as it being like “family”, something that she knew very well. Her father had been the police chief in a small Iowa town. He always described himself as being a “peace officer”, not a policeman.
It’s a telling point, for those who work in law enforcement share a unique relationship with each other engendered by working in a hazardous environment. They must behave in a manner appropriate for the situation. At one moment they are in quiet conversation, then suddenly racing in a chase, then backing off again once a suspect has been detained. It’s stressful up and down life because of the responsibilities that law enforcement carries. And what they do is absolutely necessary.
Every day, the first responders of our community prepare to leave their home for duty. They put on their body armor, tunic, badge and armament. There is the possibility that they will die or be maimed that day, and yet they go. They take a final look in the mirror. And it is a real human being that looks back.
Next: Observations from my class notes