For the past 10 years, the Benton Police Department has instilled a program that not only bridges the gap between officers and citizens, it is a chance for officers to connect and listen to citizens.
The participants of the annual Citizen's Police Academy spend a couple of hours a night, once a week for eight weeks. In return, the participants get to conduct mock traffic stops, investigate a crime scene, put on "drunk goggles," watch a K-9 officer in action, participate in a ride-a-long with an officer, hold and use various weapons, and learn what most law enforcement officials deal with in everyday situations, as well as what SWAT team members can encounter. At the end of the eight weeks, the participants are handed a certificate, gifts, and a new perspective during a graduation ceremony with the police chief and Benton mayor.
"I thought (the class) was absolutely fabulous," Joy Buchanan, a recent graduate said. "I highly recommend this class, because I think it will benefit anyone and give them a better understanding of what the boys in blue go through and put up with."
She added, "All the instructors were great. They knew what they were talking about and they were able to convey things to us on (a citizen's) level."
Participant Richard Stenger added, "People think that officers are a different breed of people and that they are unapproachable, but all the officers I met seem to be good, family-type people. They are approachable."
It is that responsibility of finding ways to let the average person see, hear and experience the operations of a police department in a non-police-jargon manner that has caused the program to have successful longevity, Lt. Kevin Russell said.
"The program allows citizens to witness first hand what their officers are doing day and night to ensure their safety and protect their property," he said. "It gives them a good insight into the way officers do or don't do certain things. And that things don't always work like you see on television."
Russell said the program also allows participants to ask a number of questions to the officers.
"Like, why do you need two officers to pull me over?" Russell asked as a sample question. "We can explain about officer safety and the courtesy between two officers in that situation. And just because you know you aren't going to do anything harmful to an officer during a traffic stop, that officer isn't privy to that information. He or she doesn't know who they are encountering or what that person's intentions are, especially when there are people out there that will try to harm a law enforcement officer."
Most officers will tell you that a traffic stop is one of the most dangerous situations they face, and they face it nearly every day. Something as simple as informing a motorist that a tail light is not working, can cause a hostile situation, or even a fatal situation.
"No matter what anyone tells you, there is no such thing as a routine traffic stop," Lt. Monte Hodge said. "It can turn deadly in a second."
Benton Police Chief Kirk Lane also said that for numerous years across the country, the leading cause of death for officers as been during traffic stops. In 2011, he said "violence against law enforcement officers is up" and that more officers have been shot and killed during traffic stops than from anything else. He told the participants at a recent graduation ceremony that "We need the cooperation and support from citizens like you to help others understand that. We need your help."
"Officers have to remain guarded on traffic stops, because that is the time they stand the greatest propensity to possibly encounter a potential violent situation," Russell said.
Participants in the Citizen's Police Academy learn everything from why an officer parks behind someone they stop in a certain manner — with the vehicle turned partially towards the roadway, wheels turned so that it acts as a shield to someone that could jump out and shoot at the officer, and at the same time, forces other motorists to veer out of the way of an officer stepping out of his patrol vehicle; why an officer uses a spotlight in a particular way during a traffic stop; the safety precautions used when they approach a stopped motorist; to the language, and patience, an officer uses when speaking with someone they just pulled over.
Then they participant gets to play the role of an officer, as the officer plays various roles of people they may encounter during a traffic stop, during the mock traffic stop class. It is all a hands-on experience in a safe environment, as the participant is armed with a water gun, as well as the stopped motorist.
"We had to remember so many things," Buchanan said. "You don't just walk up the car, there are so many things you need to before you approach that vehicle. And I didn't realize how many things an officer has to watch out for."
Participant Jeff Morse added, "I thought the entire program was very informative. It gives you a different perspective on what officers face, especially at traffic stops. Something so simple can turn dangerous very quickly, whether it is the person stopped or the oncoming traffic. It gave me a deeper respect and understanding for what they deal with on daily basis."
But at the same time, the participants also have "fun" while taking the program's classes. From laughing at Buchanan's quick-trigger-finger on the water gun that squirted water into the eye of Officer Eli Fowlkes who was playing the role of an aggravated motorist, to the smile on Jeff Richardson's face as he shot bursts of bullets from an AR-15 rifle during the shooting range day. Participants get to shoot a variety of guns, from shotguns to handguns to high caliber rifles.
"Definitely going to the shooting range was an awesome experience," Morse said. "I got to experience holding and shooting weapons that I have never used before. I would definitely say that day and the traffic night are my two favorite classes."
The participants also get to see the technology officers use, from the different techniques of searching for fingerprints — dusting or using a glue machine or using tape or chemicals — to new machines that scans a driver's license into an electronic computer software system. They get to see how K-9 officers search for drugs, and that is after the participants search for the drugs themselves and are usually unsuccessful.
Participants also get to see how K-9 officers stop suspects, through the use of an officer wearing either a bite sleeve or bit suit. And at the end of the night, they get to spend friendly time with the K-9.
Participants also learned about how and why officers use non-lethal Taser guns. And they even get put handcuffs on an officer and learn how to take them into custody, even if they become combative. The participants may even hear a story, or two, about what officers have experienced in the past why taking someone into custody.
"My second favorite class was when we got to put on the drunk goggles," Buchanan said. "People think they can get out and drive after having a drink or two, but when you put on the drunk goggles and try to drive (participants use a golf cart with an officer at their side), you step back and say, 'Wow, that is what I actually am like if I drink and drive.'"
She added, "I was also surprised at the amount of gear the SWAT team members wear and how heavy it is. And if one of their team members gets hit during a raid or something, they carry them out (into a safer environment). Plus it is probably so hot underneath it all. I don't know how (SWAT team members) do it, but I am glad they do."
Other classes includes crime-prevention tips, business watch programs, domestic violence situations, accident investigations, how to drive a Segway, field sobriety tests, and how the school resource officer program works. Participants also learn exactly how a police department operates, from the command chain, to funding, and training for officers. They also learn how officers are constantly looking for ways to improve, how to be proactive, and thus better deterring crimes.
"We could see how much crime we really have in the city and what is done about it," Stenger said. "And I also was very surprised how the chief and his group are always looking for grant money to purchase top technology."
Participant Connie Massanelli added, "I was impressed with all the resources you can get from the Police Department online. You can find crime statistics, where sex offenders are living, who is wanted for what, and much more. It is such a great tool for people to use."
Stenger only had one complaint, he wanted to tour the 911 building. But, still he came away impressed with the Citizen's Police Academy.
"I think it helped a lot to see what (officers) do, because they don't always talk about things," Stenger said. "I thought it was a very good program."
Morse added, "I would say that everyone should go through the program, especially if they are involved in a neighborhood watch program. In fact, my daughter went through the Junior Police Academy in high school a few years ago and she has been wanting to do it again. She had a really good time and when I saw an opportunity to go through it myself, I took it. I feel very fortunate to get this opportunity."
Russell added, "Not only do citizens get to learn about officers' duties, the officers also learn from citizens and their concerns and how we can better serve them in the future."
The eleventh year of the Citizen's Police Academy is expected to be conducted by either late summer or early fall, Russell said. To join the program, look for a future announcement by the Benton Police Department. A participant must not have a felony criminal history, an application must be filled out and a waiver has to be signed to participate in a police ride-a-long.
Call the Benton Police Department at 776-5948 for more information.