For the last nine weeks, I have had the opportunity to be a part of a program with the Houston Police Department called the Citizens’ Police Academy. It has been an incredible experience, both from a personal and a writer’s standpoint. I’ve been exposed to new people and situations, seen buildings normally locked down to civilians, and ridden along with police officers. It has given me a new respect for the officers and what they do.
For those that don’t know, the Citizens’ Police Academy is a ten week program that teaches civilians about different divisions within a police department. The goal of the academy is to educate the public on the inner workings of the department, so they can act as a public representative within their communities. Police these days get lots of bad press, and it’s easy to forget that, most of the time, only the bad get media attention. More often than not, the outstanding things they do aren’t publicized. This program gives civilians an inside look at what they do and why they do it.
One day a week for three hours, they give lectures, hands-on demonstrations, and field trips to the various units. Each week is a different topic, and for every topic, they bring in experts to talk to us, show us what they do, and, in some cases, teach us how to do it, too. Basically, we get to learn all of the things the cadets do in the academy, but without the homework, sweat, and tears (and the badge and gun– we don’t get those either). This program is not limited only to HPD; several students in my class have done this program around the country.
Week 1 – Orientation/Tactics
Orientation was just what it sounds like: introductions all around. But then they took us out in the police cruisers and had trainers drive us through the precision course (the driving course with all the orange cones around). Talk about an adrenaline rush! We hit 50 MPH a couple of times on a very short track. Then, they showed us intermediate weapons: OC spray (mace), batons, and tasers. They even let me shoot a taser! At a paper target, of course.
Fun fact I learned this week: Chevy Caprices are favored by some officers as their car because it’s lighter, more maneuverable, and has better handling than the Crown Vics.
Week 2 – Emergency Center Dispatch
This is the 911 dispatch center, the most locked down building that HPD has. Even one of the officers that was leading the academy hadn’t been inside, because even officers have to have a valid reason to enter. The building is hurricane-proof (shatter resistant windows, back-up generators) and bulletproof. Guards and security access points everywhere. Inside the actual dispatch room, it’s very quiet and very large and spacious. It’s divided in three sections: the middle is where the original calls start, then they’re routed either to the left or right side for fire/medical or police, respectively. We got to walk around and talk to operators and fire chiefs and police officers who were running the show.
Fun fact: SUVs with the fire department’s insignia on it respond to calls that may take the actual fire engines or ambulances longer to get to. They have two fully trained paramedics and will handle the situation until a transport-capable unit can arrive.
Week 3 – DWI Center
The officers, some of which are trained to identify without a drug test what substance people are on, gave us a tour of the DWI Center. This is where they take people that have been arrested on suspicion of intoxication. They showed us the rooms and equipment they use to take the samples, and then they showed us videos. Some were funny, showing what some people will do in a holding cell by themselves. Others were very sad. HPD recently lost an officer to a drunk driver. The officer was investigating another scene on a highway when the man plowed through the police barricade at a very high rate of speed. The officer’s last act was to push a civilian out of the way of the car. A heart-breaking reminder of the consequences of actions not always considered.
Fun fact: PCP is one of the nastiest drugs out there. It makes a person unpredictable. They are essentially separated from themselves, so they don’t feel pain, giving them the appearance of super-human strength. For example, if you lift something really heavy and you feel a pull in your back, you stop. A person on PCP doesn’t, so they may lift that fridge up, but they’ve shredded their back muscles in the process.
Week 4 – Firearms Training
Exactly what it sounds like. They brought in officers that train the cadets to show us the different types of guns they use. Then we all went out to the range and got to fire off a few rounds at a paper target (proper safety equipment and a trainer were present for each person).
Fun fact: HPD does not provide guns to cadets. They are required to buy their own within a few restrictions set by the department.
Week 5 – Air Support Center
I was actually sick this week, so I didn’t get to participate, but they took the class to the airport where the helicopter hangar is located. While the students didn’t get to ride in the helicopters, they did get to go inside them and see what all air support has to do.
Fun fact: Helicopter rides are expensive, so most people, including officers, don’t ever get to ride one.
Week 6 – Mounted Patrol/K9 Unit
This was so much fun. They brought in a K9 unit, the dog and the handler, and they told us about a lot of what they do. The dogs are so close, the handlers actually take them home each night, so they are like family. When the K9 unit had finished, they brought us out to the stables, where we got to pet and feed the horses and mules.
Fun fact: Mules are actually much more intelligent and durable in the heat than horses are. Unfortunately, mounted patrol is funded by outside donations, so the reason horses are more commonly used is because they’re prettier! (Also, if you ever hear someone call a mule stubborn from personal experience, it’s likely they were outsmarted by the mule!)
Week 7 – Ride-along
For this week, we were assigned an officer and a shift, and we accompanied the officer for his/her entire 8-hour shift. The only thing we weren’t allowed to be a part of was a car chase, but everything else was fair game. My officer was outstanding. He was very open and discussed everything he did with me. He showed me the laptop, different codes they used, and the radio. We went mostly to accidents, but there was a fight and an attempted robbery thrown in for fun, too. Got to flick on the lights and speed down the road for those.
Fun fact: All officers are trained as cadets how to handle mentally ill people. The biggest piece of advice: never tell them they’re wrong; always go along with their fantasy long enough to get them and the people around them to safety.
Week 8 – Shoot/Don’t Shoot Simulator
They brought in someone talk to us about officer-involved shootings. Even officer-involved shootings are considered homicides, so these cases are taken seriously. When he had explained that all situations are different, he put us to the test. They brought in a “judgmental simulator,” which is a fancy system that has over 400 scenarios in a computer program. It’s linked to a projector that puts the scenario on the screen, and the person (usually a cadet, but in this case, a student) holds a fake gun that is designed specifically for the simulator. We were given the reason we were dispatched, and then the scenario started. The person running the system has the option to “branch” the scenario, so if a cadet gives the right commands, sometimes the scenario would end differently, with the aggressor backing down. For the CPA’s purpose, all of ours required us to shoot.
Fun fact: To a Medical Examiner (M.E.), anything behind the middle of your side is considered your “back”. A lot of times, when people hear someone was shot in the back, it was actually on the side.
Week 9 – SWAT
This was the week I was most looking forward to. One of the SWAT guys showed us all of his gear, including three of his guns. Then he walked us through the obstacle course they have to train on: it was intense. So much so, they don’t even have to complete it in a time limit when they’re taking a PT (physical training) test. They just have to complete it. After that, he took us to the range and let all of us shoot a few rounds on an M16 rifle, and a few select people (unfortunately, I didn’t get chosen) got to shoot the sniper rifle. Then he led us to the “shoot-house,” where they train their personnel in real-life situations. They have a make-shift house lined with sheet metal (so the bullets don’t go through), and they send their teams in to either do simunition training, with paint and real people as enemies, or real scenarios, with real bullets and paper targets.
Fun fact: The SWAT team is required to qualify on their guns every single week and do a physical training qualification once every three months.
Week 10 – Graduation
I will participate in graduation next Thursday, where I will receive a cool certificate. The Chief of Police and several executive police officers will be there as well to usher in the new alumni. After that, I will officially be part of the CPA Alumni Association, so I can volunteer and do other funstuff with HPD.
Most anyone can request a ride-along. Go into a sub-station near you, and as long as you pass the background check, you will get to do a ride-along. If you’re interested in knowing a little of what patrol officers do, but you aren’t ready for the CPA or a ride-along, watch End of Watch featuring Jake Gyllenhaal and Micheal Pena. My officer in the ride-along told me it’s almost become a training video for cadets because it’s so true to life.
For HPD’s Citizens’ Police Academy, see this page: http://www.houstontx.gov/police/vip/vip_hcpa.htm. For other areas’ academies, go onto the department’s website; it should be in a “join us” or “get involved” section.
If you had an experience with the CPA, let me know in the comments!