The New Haven Police Department is holding its fifth annual Citizens’ Academy, a series of workshops and classroom sessions meant to educate community members about the workings of New Haven’s police force in an effort to clarify the role and intentions of its officers.
The academy, an eight-week program that began on Sept. 21, aims to educate a group of 25 city residents about the various jobs policemen play in order to improve their understanding of police officers’ jobs to mitigate possible tension in the community, NHPD officer Anthony Campbell said. New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. helped launch the academy five years ago because he wanted to implement a program that teaches community members about police, Campbell said.
“Mayor DeStefano realized that it’s great that we have our own police academy, but it only trains people who are informed about police,” he said. “Many people have this great mystique or stigma about policing. [DeStefano] wanted to further extend a hand out to the community to help them understand what exactly police officers do and why we do what we do.”
Campbell said those who enroll in the program receive a condensed version of the material taught in the police academy, including a history of the police department, methods of crime-scene investigation and information on victim services.
“They see the full gamut of what officers do on a daily basis,” Campbell said. “They are exposed to things like the process that goes on when you place a 911 call, from when you place the call to when the officer arrives at the scene.”
Ward 23 Alderman Yusuf I. Shah, who is enrolled in the academy this year, said he thinks the program is helpful in informing New Haven residents about how to better interact with police officers.
“I think it’s a very good program for community members to get involved with,” he said. “You want to know what the police are doing, how to report things, how to talk to the police, how they work. They’re not the average citizen. They’re a paramilitary organization, and you have to understand how to communicate with them.”
New Haven resident Robert Caplan, a member of the academy’s second class and a former member of New Haven’s Civilian Review Board, said many people are unaware of some of the things the New Haven police force does. He said he thinks many Yale students, for instance, do not know about the system of community policing that the NHPD employs.
“What you learn is a dramatically deeper understanding of the challenge faced by policemen on the street,” Caplan said. “How well are they trained? What are they supposed to do when faced with a problem? What resources do they have to count on? And also, what’s the process when someone does get arrested? You get a sense of the overall picture.”
Campbell said he thinks many people have distorted views of policing from television shows such as “Law & Order” and “CSI.” He said the media’s sales-driven focus on scandals and cases of abuse within police departments prevents people from seeing the good work that police officers do every day.
“Everyone thinks they know the law based on what they see on TV, and they don’t understand that what they see on TV isn’t exactly what goes on,” Campbell said. “We want to dispel that myth and help them to understand what the job is really about.”
Campbell also said the program is intended to clarify which steps the NHPD is allowed to take to address crime. He said the program is valuable in explaining to community members when police are and are not allowed to search someone’s belongings for drugs, for example, or why domestic-violence disputes necessitate arrests when other crimes only prompt a summons.
Shah said he thinks the program is a good way to check reflexive blaming of the police for the steps they take.
“You can’t look at the problems and then look at the police,” he said. “We have to look at each other. If we just keep pointing the finger, we’re just being part of the problem and not being solution-oriented. I think that this is a solution to a lot of the problems and ills that we have in the community.”