December 2013

Community Police Academy Open to the Public

Liz Melchor

On a Tuesday evening in early October, Captain David Lazar, dressed in full uniform, stood at the front of a San Francisco Police Academy classroom. But he wasn’t there to greet new recruits. He was launching the next session of the Community Police Academy, a three-month long weekly class open to the public. Each week a different SFPD staffer teaches a distinct module, including crime scene investigation, SWAT, and arrest control techniques.

When Captain Lazar asked the forty or so individuals to introduce themselves, the group, which ranged from 18 to 60 years old, had almost as wide a range of reasons for attending the class as their age span. A handful are college students, who one day want to join the department. Many are involved in their community and police departments, as volunteers from the Auxiliary Law Enforcement Response Team, a group trained to help in case of disasters, or as employees from SF SAFE, a nonprofit that helps communities organize neighborhood watches, among other things.

And then there are simply the curious.

“Well “Southland” is my favorite TV show and I wanted to see how much is real versus fiction,” said Scott, half-joking.

Myles Knapp drove all the way from Benicia to attend the class because he wanted to do some research. Knapp had written a novel, and needed to rework some of the scenes involving the SFPD because a few minor details—like the SFPD not having detectives but inspectors— are off, he said. Sure enough, during class a number of specifics were covered, like the fact that the rank of Commander is just above Captain, what’s the radio code for bonfires and bomb threats, and how facial recognition software is helping to solve crimes.

The Community Police Academy is more than just focused on teaching interested citizens about what really happens in the Police Department. It’s also geared towards engaging the community, which, according to Captain Lazar is a large part of policing.

In the short police history he gave the class on the first day, the captain talked about the policing of the 1950s, which was dominated by beat cops who walked the same streets daily. Things changed in the 1980s, when cops got off the beat and into squad cars. An emphasis was made on response time. “We were good at the short-term Band-Aid. The community was good at this too; call 911 or whatever. But we didn’t take the time to dig deep,” said Captain Lazar.

Today there’s a new emphasis on what Lazar called community policing, an effort to have officers and the community work together to stop crime before it happens. “The police are the public, the public are the police, and we need to work together,” Captain Lazar told the class.

While the old guard might have resisted attending a community meeting because they didn’t want civilians telling them how to do their job, the new model is to show up and listen. Residents know what’s going on at that one house that received twenty calls over the last two months, and they might alert the police to problems brewing. “Some people say community policing is soft on crime because it is touchy feely,” said Captain Lazar. “I tell these young recruits it is the exact opposite. A guy might show up at the station barbeque and tell me about his neighbor keeping a gun under his seat.”

Drew Muñoz, a 19-year-old City College student who lives in the Bayview, said his internship at the Police Academy, and his attendance at the Community Police Academy, have helped shape his perception of police officers. When he was in high school he saw himself going into business. But now he’s majoring in administration of justice and contemplating a career in policing. When he was younger, he explained, a member of his family was always in jail. He remembered one time when police came and threw some sort of gas to break up a family party. “They didn’t even think if there were children there,” said Muñoz. “I was angry, but I still always thought of the police as something good and something that every city needs.”

Now that he’s worked with police officers for the last six months, he’s realized that not only are they the people you want to respond when you call 911, but that they are human just like him. “I have befriended a lot of officers, I know they have my back and I have theirs. I ask them about their day and they ask about mine,” said Muñoz.

Attending the Community Police Academy isn’t required by his internship, but Muñoz realized that there was still much for him to learn. “I wanted to learn more. I don’t know how it is to really be a police officer. I think a lot of people know what the job is about; riding around in a car, taking two hour lunch breaks, getting fat and living off a healthy retirement system,” said Muñoz. “Well it isn’t that, they are seeing people at their worst. They work hard and get tired. They go through so much stuff.”

Muñoz’s favorite class so far was on Latino gangs in San Francisco, taught by Sergeant Mario Molina. He said even the students who had lived thirty plus years in the City were shocked by things the gang expert told them. For Muñoz, it’s the personal stories that the different instructors insert into their lectures that make things interesting. “I have more and more respect for these people. They share their personal experiences, like I didn’t know that as a kid their brother and sisters were involved in gangs, and I can say to myself wow, that sounds like my story,” said Muñoz.

Muñoz joked that some of the classes are about showing off police toys, like an up close look at patrol cars. But by the end of the first class, the students had learned the difference between reactive policing—responding to emergency calls—and community policing. “There is a disconnect between citizens and the police,” said Muñoz. “I wish everyone could take the Community Police Academy classes, or they could teach them in high schools, because right now there just is not the comfortability. You think that police officers aren’t human just like I thought when I was younger. But they are human.”

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