Organizers and participants of the Northern Illinois University Department of Police and Public Safety (NIU PD) say the 11-week Citizen Police Academy program is making strides towards its goals of engaging the community and building positive relationships. The academy is free and open to all members of the NIU community.
The program’s second class, which included 16 participants, wrapped up this spring, and organizers are already planning the next one, set to take place in early 2018.
Chief of Police Tom Phillips said NIU PD leadership were inspired to launch their own Citizen Police Academy after attending a police summit focused on ways to improve police and community relations after the riots in Ferguson, MO, several years ago.
“At that summit, we discussed lessons learned and what departments can do to bridge the gap between community and police,” Phillips said. He noted that while many established citizen police academies are lecture-style, NIU PD organizers felt it was important to incorporate a hands-on element along with practical scenarios to engage the participants.
The academy met Wednesday evenings from January through April, and each week they addressed different topics, including dispatch operations, criminal law, the county sheriff’s office (including a jail tour), traffic law, use of force, criminal investigations, EMT and paramedic training, evidence collection, building searches and mock trials. The classes were taught by a variety of officers within the department, ranging from patrol officers to detectives to supervisory staff.
Debra Miller, director of the NIU Disability Resource Center, decided to participate because she felt it would be helpful to broaden perspectives regarding how the police department operates and how information from the Disability Resource Center could support training for officers.
“The weekly interactions with different officers provided not only a feeling of collaboration, but the instructional information was eye-opening and applicable to everyday life,” she said.
Miller said she liked the format because the first half of each class was informational and the second half allowed for role play and hands-on scenarios.
“This gave us a very in-depth and personal opportunity to understand first-hand how to make decisions, what to look for, how to approach and ask questions, and what the risks are that every officer encounters,” she said.
Carrie Williams participated because she works in a diversity center on campus. She said, “It was important for me to gain insight and understanding if I wanted to be a link to build stronger bridges. I wanted to be that person included in making our community unified through connection, communication and understanding.”
Williams said she learned that many times, officers at NIU make it their priority to help students get back on the right track so they can complete their degree and be a better citizen.
“The goal is to connect with the students and community as a whole so they can best serve and protect holistically from situations, circumstances, life-threatening occurrences, poor choices, thus building a healthier and a more unified community,” she said.