When new classes at the Citizens Police Academy began last week, nearly every seat in the classroom was taken — even in the front row.
The sessions aren’t always so packed. But now the specter of Michael Brown is in the room.
Anna McDonald sensed that presence when taking the classes last fall at the Kansas City Police Department’s academy in the Northland.
“You could kind of tell by the questions how people in a roundabout way were trying to figure out what happened in Ferguson without actually saying it,” the 30-year-old recalled. “The news was really saturated with negative police stories.”
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Citizens academies — an outreach of police departments — have been around in the United States for more than 20 years. Departments in Overland Park, Grandview, Lenexa, Independence, Blue Springs and Shawnee offer them, some twice a year.
But in the aftermath of the events in the St. Louis County suburb of Ferguson, and with Eric Garner’s death in New York, anti-police demonstrations and the murders of two New York police officers in their squad car, this avenue for police-civilian interaction seems all the more crucial.
“More than ever,” agreed William Barajas, who coordinates a similar program that began Monday sponsored by the Kansas City, Kan., Police Department.
Many — even some of those who are attending the classes — perceive the men and women with badges as “the enemy.”
“A lot of them, I guess, thought cops just went around using force with impunity … that they use excessive force or shoot people unarmed for no reason,” Barajas said.
Certainly on the first day of a new round of courses, Barajas hears stories when he asks about participants’ encounters, good and bad, with the police. The complaints aren’t new.
▪ Don’t the police have anything better to do than pull me over? Why aren’t they out there catching the real bad guys?
▪ Why don’t they care about my neighborhood?
▪ That cop was rude!
For Capt. Rance Quinn, who has been with the Kansas City, Kan., Police Department for 21 years, such discussion “lets us interact with the citizens of our community in a way that we don’t normally interact with them, and it helps to build up trust.”
He explains why officers approach a car during a traffic stop in a certain way.
“To say: ‘Hey, we’re not the bad guy here. We’re here to help you. This is why we do business a certain way.’”
Master Sgt. Lorrie Whitehead, who coordinates a Citizens Academy in Grandview, sees some people “coming in with a chip on their shoulder, and while we may not have totally turned them, they had a new respect.”
“We definitely have seen the negative people walk away more positive, and that’s what we’re looking for.”
The template is universal: Lots of hands-on demonstrations to put civilians in an officer’s shoes as much as is legally possible.
Participants learn about crime-scene investigations, go on ride-alongs with officers, handle weapons on a firing range and take tours of police laboratories and 911 centers.
Along the way there’s talk, a lot of talk, between officers and civilians.
“I think the first thing they provide is a very calm, uninterrupted environment where you are safe,” said Richard Powers, president of the National Association of Citizen Police Academies. “Calm settings induce communications and let you start the dialogue.”
Police departments market their programs with YouTube videos, Facebook pages and more recently on the private social network NextDoor.com. Jamie Diaz of Kansas City found out about the Kansas City Police Department’s class from a department tweet. The 19-year-old security guard wants to be a police officer. He is tired of the “negative media headlines” surrounding police these days.
To keep people plugged into work by police after the classes end, some departments sponsor alumni groups. The Kansas City department is working on setting one up for its graduates.
One of those graduates is Anissa Parra, 36, who came away enlightened with this thought: The police do have more important things to do than try to catch her speeding. (Not that she speeds, mind you.)
Her ride-along session involved a high-speed chase down U.S. 71.
“I was kind of hoping we would be the one to catch (the bad guy),” she said.
In those days right after Ferguson, Parra was impressed with hearing about what she called the department’s “pro-active” involvement in the community, like the night an officer spoke about his work on Kansas City’s Hispanic west side.
“You don’t trust what you don’t know,” said Parra.
Too few African-Americans
Stragglers to the Kansas City academy’s first class last week found the parking lot in front of the building in the Northland packed.
More than 100 people signed up for the 11-week program, a response that both shocked and encouraged police officials. Some ended up on a waiting list for the next round of classes in the fall.
Sixty-some showed up on the first night — a handful of millennials, a lot of baby boomers, a few gray-haired retirees, a couple of folks in business suits who looked like they came straight from work.
When the group was asked how many folks had concealed-carry gun permits, at least a dozen hands shot up. No one acknowledged having a gun on them.
Only a handful of people in the class were African-American, a community that often feels mistreated and abused at the hands of law enforcement.
Kansas City police work with local African-American leaders to market the academy, even holding classes closer to the center of the city to make them accessible. But those efforts haven’t drawn the crowds that they would like.
Powers, a retired officer who runs the citizens academy in South Bend, Ind., put together a program a few years ago specifically for Hispanic and Spanish-speaking residents. He promoted it through churches, a historically key resource in Hispanic neighborhoods, and the Mexican consulate’s office in nearby Chicago.
When time came for the classes, “we could not have them come to the police department in the first four to five weeks, because that is not a trusted environment in the culture they came from,” he said.
But by the seventh week the participants felt comfortable enough to begin meeting at the police department.
“You’ve got to know your audience,” said Powers.
When Barajas took over the academy in Kansas City, Kan., two years ago, he only had a half dozen sign up for a program built to accommodate 25.
“There was obviously a failure in communication on both ends, as far as the Police Department marketing it and the citizens participating,” Barajas said. “There’s still the issue of trust, and it’s a time commitment — seven weeks, two nights a week.”
So last fall he advertised the program on UGTV, the cable access channel for the Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kan., “and we got a really good response,” he said.
“Last fall we had a diverse demographic. We had from age 18 all the way through 74, 75, and from every ethnic background that KCK is known for.”
In Grandview, Police Chief Charles Iseman has adopted the motto that he wants his city’s residents to “move toward the badge, not away from the badge.”
Still, for one of Whitehead’s sessions, half the people who signed up never showed.
‘Part of the family’
In his greeting to the Kansas Citians at their first class last week, Deputy Chief Randy Hopkins referenced “what we see going on in the nation.”
His remarks made clear that the class is more than just entertaining folks with ride-alongs and the always popular meet-and-greets with the K-9 dogs.
Put bluntly, after the much-watched, dragged-out grand jury decisions to not indict officers, sparking burning buildings in St. Louis County and massive protests in New York, the police are seeking allies.
“I always consider you ambassadors for us, because once you go through this, you’re part of the family,” Hopkins said. “When we have you all coming here and taking time out of your schedules, that’s so encouraging, because we benefit from this exchange.”
McDonald, who directs the Upward Bound program at Avila University, took the Kansas City class because she hails from small-town Nebraska where people know the local constables. She wanted to learn how the police function in a bigger city.
She recalled the “level of nervousness” of even the routine traffic stops she watched on her ride-along, a feeling she will remember now if she’s ever stopped for a traffic violation.
“I recommend the class to a lot of my colleagues, because if the only knowledge (about the police) is what you’re getting from the news, you’re only getting the bad side,” said McDonald.
When Sal Villareal was growing up in the Argentine neighborhood of Kansas City, Kan., people usually weren’t happy to see the police cruising through.
“The feeling there was not fond of police officers at all. There was negativity all the time,” said Villareal, 29, who now works as an office assistant in the detective bureau of the Kansas City, Kan., Police Department; he wants to be an officer someday.
Last fall when he took the department’s Citizens Academy classes, he heard the distrust. Some people brought up run-ins they’d had with police.
But as those 21 adults learned about how the police do their jobs and how they’re trained, “you could see that the people were coming around, learning that police are really just people like (them),” said Villareal.
“I feel like you lose that human aspect when you see the blue shirt and badge.”
To reach Lisa Gutierrez, call 816-234-4987 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Many local citizens police academies are taking registration for spring classes. Check with your police department for availability. Generally, students must be at least 18 (sometimes 21) and pass background checks. Classes are typically free.
▪ Kansas City, Kan., police: Monday and Wednesday nights from March 2 to April 15. Call 913-596-3000 or go to kckpd.org/Services/TrainingAcademy/CitizenVolunteer.
▪ Grandview police: May 7. One of eight Thursday-night sessions that covers all aspects of the city’s operations. Go to grandview.org or call 816-316-4900.
▪ Platte County Sheriff’s Office: Tuesday nights for nine weeks starting March 24. Deadline to sign up is March 10. Sign up at plattesheriff.org/sheriffs-citizens-academy. 816-858-2424.
▪ Clay County Sheriff’s Office: Thursday evenings for six weeks starting April 16. Call Sgt. Aimee Agderian, 816-407-3798, or email her at email@example.com.
Under Our Skin
About this series: In “Under Our Skin,” The Star’s features staff is talking to Kansas Citians about race, prejudice and bigotry. From Ferguson to the legacy of the country’s first black president, the series aims to foster and nurture conversations that will help us learn from one another’s experiences. If you have story ideas, please send them to David Frese at firstname.lastname@example.org or Kathy Lu at email@example.com.