Citizens Police Academy – an inside look at the CHPD

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Background: The Cleveland Heights Police Department has launched a Citizens Police Academy for members of the community who are interested in learning more about how the police department operates. The first course runs 6-9 p.m. on Monday and Tuesday evenings, for seven weeks beginning Aug. 11 and ending Sept. 30, 2014. This blog post is one of a series about my experience in the program. Click here for the full series.

The Cleveland Heights Police Academy is filled with recognition of past police successes, and memorials to fallen officers.

I’ve been vocal enough about the city’s approach to public safety that I really had no choice when the Cleveland Heights Police Department announced it would launch its own Citizens Police Academy. I applied a few weeks ago and – after a successful criminal background check – Police Chief Jeff Robertson told me himself that I’d been accepted.

Then he said something about my getting to wear the chew suit during the K-9 demonstration. It was a joke.

I think.

Citizens Police Academy is not a new idea; they do it in Shaker Heights and a few other nearby suburbs. The goal is to give a group of interested citizens an inside look at how the police department operates. As Robertson told the 20 members of the first class on Monday, “It’s to see what the city is like through our eyes.”

Each class will become part of an alumni group, which Robertson hopes will provide an ever-larger pool of residents to support good communication and good policing throughout the city.

A reminder of fallen officers exists in almost every room: On a tour of the police department, Academy Commander Cpt. Geoffrey Barnard recites details going back to the 1920s about those who died in the line of duty.

The program began Monday, Aug. 11 and runs every Monday and Tuesday, from 6-9 p.m. through the end of September. That’s 36 scheduled hours of class time.

Here are some things I learned the first evening:

  • If 36 hours sounds like a lot of time to spend sitting in the old fire house at Noble Road and Monticello Boulevard, it’s nothing compared to what real police trainees get. The police curriculum is standardized by the state at more than 600 hours. Trainees come for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week for about 5 months.
  • Cleveland Heights operates one of 76 police academies in Ohio. It is, by at least two measures, the best of them: 96.6% of students who enter the academy end up passing the state exam at the end; and the test scores of its graduates average 90% – by far the highest in Ohio, according to data from the Ohio Attorney General. (The average scores of all 76 academies are posted on the wall at the CH academy; I’m writing this in the wee hours and didn’t take time to find the data independently online).
  • The academy was founded in 1973, and moved to its current location in 1991 (the building closed as a firehouse in 1980). It has graduated 97 classes and more than 5,000 police candidates.
  • Our academy trains police officers for 130 jurisdictions, including Shaker Heights, University Heights, South Euclid, Parma, Hunting Valley, Lorain, Cleveland Clinic and RTA to name a few. It also accepts “open enrollment” trainees who don’t already have a police job but hope to use the training in order to get one. Cost to attend is $3,750 – apparently much lower than other academies.
  • If you do the math, a class of 30 people brings in revenue of about $112,000 and the academy can train two classes a year. It strives to be revenue-neutral for the city. When I have time, I may actually look into the numbers, but I have no reason to doubt the academy’s commander, Cpt. Geoffrey Barnard, when he says it brings in as much money as it costs to run.

Barnard says the question he hears frequently is why Cleveland Heights should have its own academy when so many other suburbs seem satisfied to outsource their training. The answer, he says, is because it allows police officers in Cleveland Heights to receive ongoing training throughout their careers at a higher level than in-service training provides at a typical police department.

“People don’t realize how highly trained our police department is,” Barnard says. “And the reason they’re so highly trained is this academy. It enables us to set the bar high – higher than we could if we didn’t have it.”

Because of its reputation, classes are always full; so closing it would hurt our own police department and it wouldn’t reduce expenses.

There are some surprises; this police academy is nothing like the one in Police Academy the movie. The gags aren’t nearly as funny (at least not so far) but more important, it doesn’t feel like a paramilitary boot camp. That’s by design, according to Barnard.

“The typical approach in a police academy is to use it as a place to weed out those who don’t belong,” Barnard says. “We don’t feel that’s our job; that’s for you to decide. If you come through the doors here, our job is to help you succeed.”

So students are treated with courtesy, dignity and respect. They are given clear expectations, and receive the benefit of a doubt whenever possible, he says: “The way we treat them in the classroom is the way we want them to treat people when they’re out in public.”

One other surprise is the pop machine, which may be the last one in America to sell soda at 50 cents a can.

Other aspects of the academy aren’t surprising at all. Its walls are a museum of old photos, commendations, positive news coverage and memorabilia. The most visible of these are memorials to the police officers who died in the line of duty.

In fact, you can find at least one reminder of fallen officers in just about every room at both the academy and the police station – which we toured as part of the first night’s class.

In the main classroom at the academy, photos of those who died most recently – Officer Tom Patton, who suffered a fatal heart attack while chasing a suspect in 2010; and Officer Jason West, shot and killed in 2007 while responding to a domestic violence report – are prominently displayed under the American flag. The flag itself flew over the U.S. Capitol in honor of West.

Do these constant reminders serve to honor the dead? Or give caution to the living?

For all its good intentions, I can’t predict the Citizens Police Academy will really answer that question; it’s probably not necessary.

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