10-week course offers insight into police force

The Minneapolis Police Dept. is just one agency offering a citizens’ academy.

Are you thinking about becoming a police officer? Do you want to understand why police officers make the decisions they do? Have you ever wondered what the inside of a county jail looks like?

These are a few reasons people might sign up to take a citizens’ academy class offered by their local law enforcement agency.

Minneapolis police are offering a 10-week course, scheduled to begin today at the department’s 5th Precinct in south Minneapolis.

The weekly, three-hour classes give police the opportunity to talk with the public about their jobs, coordinator and Crime Prevention Specialist Carol Oosterhuis said, but that isn’t the only reason why the classes are offered.

“It’s a chance to get rid of some of the myths that might be out there because of things seen on TV shows,” she said.

An eclectic group of people have signed up to take the class in the past, Oosterhuis said.

Victim advocates, people active in neighborhood safety committees, citizens considering careers in law enforcement and a jail official from a neighboring county have taken the class.

Don Luna, coordinator for the St. Paul Police Department’s 11-week citizens’ academy, said neighborhood activists typically attend its classes but the class attracts others too. He remembered one student who was taking the class to do research for a book he was writing.

People who want to take either department’s class must apply in advance and also must pass a background check.

Class sizes are typically small. Oosterhuis said 35 people will be taking MPD’s class this spring.

Luna said a “good class” for SPPD is 25 students.

Both departments offer two classes each year, one spring and one fall session. Luna said St. Paul’s next citizens’ academy is probably going to begin in early April.

During the classes, students get a “mini block” of what officers get trained in, Luna said.

Officers from MPD’s mounted patrol, canine and narcotics units, and homicide investigation team will address students in the department’s spring academy.

Students will also hear from members of the gang unit, evidence and crime scene technicians and police training officers.

Tours of the jail and the 911 center are scheduled, and students will be given the opportunity to try to match different fingerprint samples.

The citizens’ academy offered by St. Paul police will have similar weekly sessions.

Participant requirements for each department’s academy vary slightly.

To attend a Minneapolis academy an applicant must be 18 years old and live or work in Minneapolis.

St. Paulites, however, must be 21 years old, live or own a business in St. Paul and have no criminal record.

Graduates of the St. Paul citizens’ academy can become police reserve officers. The class is also a prerequisite for people who want to serve on the St. Paul Police Citizen Internal Affairs Review Commission.

Oosterhuis said citizens’ academies are offered around the country, and not just by police departments.

FBI field offices around the country also have citizens’ academies, but requirements are much more stringent.

Business, civic and religious leaders have priority when it comes to selecting class participants, but all people are open to apply, Special Agent Paul McCabe said.

The FBI has received thousands of applications since the program started in 2005.

Academy attendees must be at least 21 years old, have no felony convictions and undergo a background check, because interim security clearance is granted to the class’ students.