Like most people, I followed the coverage of the anti-police protests this summer in Ferguson, Missouri, in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s shooting. Tempers were running high, on both sides, and on both sides, emotions and attitudes long held in check seemed to have busted loose and were running unfettered.
Since the turbulent summer in Missouri, a rash of polarizing police incidents have taken place all over the country—the most high-profile ones in Cleveland and New York. And since then, a Pennsylvania state trooper and two New York City patrolmen were, for lack of a better word, executed. Ambushed. Murdered. It seems like the divide between law enforcement and the community, while never slight, is on the way to becoming unnavigable.
Last summer, when the Ferguson protests were at their heights, as the emotional stakes rose higher and higher, a second shooting took place in St. Louis, about four miles from the scene of the Brown incident. Police shot and killed Kajieme Powell. More outrage. More calls for the cops to be reined in. More accusations of murder. We may never know the truth about what happened in Ferguson, but as I viewed some cell phone footage from the Powell shooting, of Powell waving a knife at the officers, disregarding their orders to put the knife down, advancing on the officers, still waving the knife, my first thought was “this looks like a training video on when you need to use deadly force.”
The reason I thought that was that I spent an evening at the Allegheny County Police Academy’s Firearms Training Simulator running through a number of complicated video scenarios with a pretend pistol, as part of the Mt. Lebanon Citizen Police Academy. Like every one of the 12 evening classes, this one was equal parts entertaining, informative and thought-provoking. Like every one of the 13 class members, I came away from the academy with a much better understanding of how cops do their jobs.
In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that growing up, I was never taught that Mister Policeman is my friend. Quite a few of my childhood friends were, what’s the word I’m looking for here? Oh yeah. Criminals. For as long as I can remember, most of my friends and family viewed anyone with a badge and a gun as someone who could jam you up good if you said or did the wrong thing. Best to just steer clear.
So it wasn’t until I had been doing this job for a number of years that the academy, which a colleague and I took as a work assignment, opened my eyes to what these men and women really have to deal with in the course of a shift. In any profession, there are always going to be stars, and, frankly, some people who have no business there. But in law enforcement, the opportunity to do a lot of good, counterbalanced with the opportunity to cause a lot of harm, calls for a very special kind of skill set. Not everyone has it. Not even everyone in law enforcement has it.
There hasn’t been a Citizen Police Academy for a couple of years, because there hasn’t been enough enrollment, but the department is planning another one for this year, and no matter what you think cops are—crusaders, bullies, superheroes, ticket-happy donut munchers—this class will give you a ton of new perspective. And with the present climate all over the country, perspective is at a premium.
The next Citizen Police Academy is tentatively scheduled to run from March 3 through April 28, 2015, 6:30 to 9:30 p.m., at the Mt. Lebanon Public Safety Building, 555 Washington Road. You can pick up an application at the public safety building, or the municipal building.
Learn more about our experience at the Citizen Police Academy here