Riverdale residents learn policework
By Jessica Miller (Standard-Examiner staff)
RIVERDALE -- Gunshots ring out from a vehicle surrounded by police cars.
"Put your hands in the air!" one officer yells at an armed man.
"Put the gun down!" another officer shouts out.
"We will shoot you!" yells another.
Tensions run high, but luckily for the officers -- and the man driving the car -- none of it is real. The "officers" are Riverdale residents dressed in plain clothes, and most of the guns are just fingers held in a shooting position.
They are part of the Riverdale Citizens Police Academy, a 10-week course that teaches residents the whats and whys of police work.
"It's good to educate citizens on what we do and why we do things," said Lt. James Ebert, who organized the classes. "The 'why' is the most important thing, so they have an understanding for the purpose and the reason."
The weekly class started off with a bang -- literally. After the first week of orientation, participants got a taste of what the SWAT team does and the equipment they use. They saw the SWAT team in action, shooting targets and throwing flash bombs in a mock-home raid. Then, participants were able to shoot a handgun and a machine gun at targets.
A week later, participants got to drive a police car, talk on the police radio and pull over people who volunteered to commit "traffic offenses" in the parking lot behind the police station.
For Earlene Lee, from Mountain Green, this was her favorite activity in the police academy.
"I really liked driving the car and pulling people over," she said.
The challenge of the activity was the students never knew what they were going to get. One volunteer may be compliant, but another may have a gun hidden in the vehicle, ready to shoot anyone who gets in the way.
The real officers taught tactics to use to successfully handle any situation that may come up during a traffic stop. They learned to be quick, to be loud and yell at the offender, and always watch the offender's hands.
"It's distraction," Ebert said. "It takes people off guard. Those are the tactics that law enforcement uses, and when people understand that, it helps them to better understand what we're doing and why we're doing it."
Ebert said all 19 officers from the Riverdale police department are used during the training, whether they teach or help make the practical exercises run smoothly. He said that while the academy is helpful for people to understand what officers do, it is also beneficial for the officers to be involved in such a program.
"It gets officers in contact with citizens that like them, that want to understand what they are doing," he said. "It helps them stay balanced, and that balance is really critical to law enforcement. Not only do we try to educate and train and help the citizens understand, it's also really good for our officers to be in contact with people who are interested in what they are doing and are positive."
The academy was open to Riverdale residents, but Ebert said they also allowed people from neighboring cities to participate. The department had twice as many people sign up as they expected. Nearly 50 people registered for class, and while all were accepted this year, Ebert said they will put a cap on future enrollment.
Ebert said the most difficult part about planning the academy is managing all of the people involved.
"Managing it and putting it together is always a task," he said. "But we are lucky because we have so many resources through other departments and other agents that will just come in and help us. We are really lucky."
Several departments, including the Weber-Morgan Narcotics Strike Force, Crime Scene Investigations and the Weber County Jail, played a part in making the academy happen by helping to teach about their areas of law enforcement.
The cost of the program comes out of the training budget, Ebert said. He said the biggest cost for the academy is the T-shirts provided to participants, and the overtime paid to officers.
"There is a cost associated," he said. "But we provide a service, a very large service. It's not just enforcing laws. One of those services is education."
Many of the citizens said their experience was worth it, and they would recommend it to others contemplating attending a citizen police academy.
Lee, who works for the Riverdale Justice Court, said she joined the academy to get a better understanding of what police do so she could explain it to those who come through the court system.
"When people come through the court, they are always complaining about the officers," she said. "I can explain it to people and give them an understanding."
Chad Buckler, from Riverdale, enjoyed his experience.
"I joined because I thought it would be interesting to find out what police do," he said. "I've learned a lot."
Charlotte Christensen, from South Weber, said she joined the academy because the police chief was a former neighbor of hers. She also said she learned a lot from the academy and what police do on a day-to-day basis.
"It's starting to ruin movies and TV," she said.
Students will graduate from the police academy Monday after a mock trial at the Riverdale Justice Court.