Why do cops’ traffic stops tie up the busy Post Road?
What goes on in a domestic violence call?
And what’s it like to ride with a police officer on a shift?
Those questions — and many more they didn’t even know to ask — were answered clearly and honestly for 25 Westporters recently.
They were members of the Citizen Police Academy, an innovative program that brings community members and cops together for 9 weeks of intense, interactive sessions.
The goal is to bridge the gap between the Westport Police Department, and the citizens they protect and serve. With many officers not living in town — and many residents having little interaction with police — there are too many chances for misconceptions and myths.
The first Citizens Police Academy was held in 2009. The next one was 7 years later.
There was not enough interest last year. But this time — thanks to great publicity by the Sunrise Rotary Club, on Facebook and through work of mouth — organizers turned people away.
A similar youth academy — for high school students — ran concurrently.
Lieutenant Eric Woods — who runs the detective bureau — led this year’s sessions.
The adult course began with an overview of the organizational structure of the WPD, and a tour of facilities.
Quickly, the class jumped into meaty topics. They included domestic violence, the Youth Bureau, patrol techniques, criminal investigations, crime scene processing, DUI enforcement, dispatch, presentations by the state attorney and public defender offices, recruitment, training, interactions with other police departments and the Westport schools, K-9, SWAT, and the marine division and dive team.
Participants rode with patrol officers, got certified in CPR, and experienced the pistol range with a police-issued firearm.
Rick Jaffe was one of the citizen participants. He raved abut the course.
“The police department is one of the most important and sensitive components of life in Westport,” he says.
“To see how it operates, and how it integrates with our society, is so valuable it’s hard to measure. Every single member of the police force who took part could not have been nicer, could not have been more informative, and could not have been more willing.”
He calls the Citizen Police Academy “a hidden-in-plain-sight Westport gem.”
Woods echoes Jaffe’s praise. “There was a lot of dialogue, a lot of back-and-forth. It’s great for police to hear from the community side, and for Westport residents to feel comfortable with us. I think they learned that there’s a reason for everything we do.”
So about those traffic stops on the Post Road, during rush hour…
“When we pull someone over, we want them to go to a parking lot,” Woods explains.
“But if they stop on the side of the road, we work with them there. People are nervous. We get it. Everyone acts differently. We never know what to expect at a stop.”
Similarly, Woods says, “we talk about why we don’t always enforce low-level traffic offenses so vigorously. Usually it’s an issue of manpower or timing.”
Once Academy students hear those explanations — and others like it — they understand, Woods says.
Similarly, in the session on crime scene investigations, residents learned that police work is not at all like “CSI.”
“Our big thing now is biological evidence, like DNA,” Woods notes. “We don’t want to throw fingerprint dust all over the place. I think they were amazed to see the difference between DNA and fingerprint recovery.”
Woods cites the ride-alongs, firing range, K-9 unit, and dialogue with the state attorney and public defender as high on the list of topics the Westporters learned from and appreciated.
“This is a great, community-based program,” Woods says. “It’s a proactive way to show we’re here for you. We were gratified to get such a positive response.”
Course members ranged in age from 20s to 70s. They included attorneys, corporate executives, and a retired firefighter. The Westport Police Department covered all costs (primarily for instructors’ time).
They plan to run both the adult and youth courses next year. Once again, they’ll probably turn people away.
Whoever thought Westporters would clamor to get into the police station?