Citizen Police Academy Offers Insight into Law Enforcement Work

Residents of Huntsville learn about their police department at the Citizen Police Academy.
Residents of Huntsville learn about their police department at the Citizen Police Academy.

Students and staff from Sam Houston State University, College of Criminal Justice, got a behind-the-scenes look at the Huntsville Police Department to better prepare for careers in the field.

Huntsville is one of many communities in the state that offer a Citizen Police Academy, a multi-week program to familiarize interested residents in the diverse aspects of their local departments. After going through an application and selection process, participants get a glimpse into the day-to-day workings of the criminal justice system, including dispatch, patrol, specialty units, courts, probation and jail.

“It’s our way of keeping citizens informed about what we do,” said Senior Officer Mark Jenkins of the Bicycle Patrol Unit, which oversees the academy. “It’s eye opening. People have no idea of the types of calls we go on.”

Members of the citizen academy listen to a K9 Officer.
The latest Citizens Academy included students and staff from the College of Criminal Justice.
While the Citizen Academy usually attracts older, retired residents, the College of Criminal Justice represented half of the latest 17 member class and included students, alumni and staff.

“I learned lots of things,” said Jacob Ratliff, a senior who plans to do an internship with the Plano Police Department in the fall. “I learned a lot of things I would learn at the (police) academy, so I have that knowledge going in. It gives me a leg-up.”

In Huntsville, the Citizen Academy is held once a week for 14 weeks, with different programs highlighted during the three hour sessions. In addition to providing an overview of the department, residents learn about the training required to become – and to continue – as a police officer. Before officers begin with the department, recruits attend a six-month police academy as well as about six months of on-the-job mentoring with a field training officer. Each year, officers are required to take at least 20 hours of continuing education, in such areas as mental health, sex offenders, active shooters, or defensive tactics, to name a few.

A participant maps out a mock accident scene.A participant maps out a mock accident scene.At the Citizen Academy, participants were immersed in the criminal justice system from start to finish. At the Walker County 9-1-1 Center, they listened to incoming calls for assistance. At the Huntsville Police Department, they got to experience many aspects of policing and learned about specialty units. At the Walker County District Attorney’s Office, they discovered how cases are prosecuted and the evidence needed to bring a case to trial. In Municipal Court, they witnessed the types of cases handled in the venue and how justice is dispensed. To follow those convicted of crimes, the group toured the new Walker County Jail as well as adult and juvenile probation to understand the different procedures and programs offered to offenders.

At the Huntsville Police Department, the class got an in-depth look at the people and programs that protect the citizens of the community. “We want them to be aware of those things we do to keep them safe, and we encourage them to do things like lock their doors or don’t leave your purses on the seat of the car,” said Senior Officer Kenneth Posey, the second bicycle patrol officer who oversees the program.

Citizens learn about use of force policies.
Citizens learn about use of force policies.
The residents got several firsthand experiences in policing, culminating with a ride-along with officers on a regular shift. After learning about accident scene reporting and reconstruction, the class got to practice on a mock wreck taking measurements on the vehicles involved. Following a presentation on the SWAT team, residents shot a wide variety of weapons at the gun range as well as participated in simunitions training, where officers are sent into a building for a “hostage situation” and required to determine the “good” guys and the “bad” guys.

“It’s a shoot, don’t shoot situation,” said Officer Jenkins. “You don’t know about the tunnel vision you get and how fast things happen. You have to make a decision instantly.”
The class also saw a taser in action when a rookie police officer offered “to ride the lightening.” The demonstration launched into a discussion about the use of force policy in the department.

Students watch a demonstration at the Police Firing Range.
Students watch a demonstration at the Police Firing Range.
The Narcotic Unit shared their experience with the drugs found in Huntsville and how they attack those crimes. Walker Pyle, an SHSU student, said he got information on the latest drugs on the street and the popular contraband among college students. “Some of the stuff, I never heard of,” he said.

At the Criminal Investigations Division, participants got insight into the investigation process, including crime scenes, searches, fingerprinting, photo lineup, DNA testing and victim services. Other classes looked at DWI investigation, the K-9 unit, traffic stops and felony arrests. They visited with school resources officers and participated in a session on internet crime and child safety. They also learned about the work of the animal control unit.

Participants also were given lessons in crime prevention and community policing efforts by the bicycle patrol, a unit which meets and greets citizens in the neighborhoods where they live. They also found out about the internal processes used to investigation complaints about officers, which includes bringing in the Texas Rangers on serious allegations.

Resident marks location at a fake accident scene.
Resident marks location at a fake accident scene.
“It was a lot of fun,” said Pyle. “The officers were really friendly and really nice. You learn about different aspects -- like SWAT, the K-9 Unit, and narcotics – different areas you can get involved in later in your career. I don’t want to be put on patrol for 20 years.”

For Shelly Beaird, an assistant in the CJ Internship Office, it gave her the experience she needed to help guide students into their future professions.

“It interested me personally,” said Beaird. “A lot of students that come for internships don’t know what they want to do. Now I understand more about local police departments and can provide some insight to students.”

Police Chief Kevin Lunsford, another SHSU graduate, said he is proud of the program.

“I am excited for this opportunity to share information with the citizens of our community,” Chief Lunsford said. “Officers Posey and Jenkins have done a marvelous job in coordinating the Citizens Police Academy. They have taken this opportunity to demonstrate that Huntsville has a very professional police agency that is full of employees who truly care about about our community.”

Chief Kevin Lunsford is a SHSU alumnus.
Chief Kevin Lunsford is also a SHSU alumnus.
Huntsville plans to offer the next citizen academy in early 2015, but similar opportunities are available at many other local departments. According to the Texas Citizen Police Academy Alumni Association, agencies that offer these programs include Angleton, Arlington, Austin, Belton, Beaumont, Bedford, Burleson, Carrollton, College Station, Corinth, Corpus Christi, Dallas, Deer Park, Desoto, Dickinson, Duncanville, El Paso, Euless, Flower Mound, Forest Hill, Fort Worth, Fredericksburg, Galveston, Garland, Grand Prairie, Harris County Sheriff’s, Hays County Sheriff, Irving, Jacksonville, Kemah, Kerrville, Kyle, LaGrange, LaMarque, La Porte, League City, Lewisville, Mesquite, Mansfield, Pasadena, Pearland, Plano, Richardson, Richmond, Roanoke, San Angelo, San Marcos, Seagoville, Sugar Land, Temple, Texas City, Travis County Sheriff, Trophy Club, Waco, Weatherford, and Webster.

For Jenkins, who plans to start SHSU in the fall, the Citizen Academy provides an opportunity to educate the public about the profession.

“I enjoy educating folks that we don’t have an agenda, and we don’t have to meet a quota on traffic tickets,” said Jenkins. “We do enjoy what we do, and we are not the bad guys. We are normal people.”

Member of The Texas State University System