Citizens Police Academy seeks to foster relationships

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WESTBROOK — The Westbrook Police Department will be hosting a Citizens Police Academy this winter to dissolve barriers that may exist between officers and residents.

The 10-week course will take place every Wednesday from 6-9 p.m. starting on Feb. 14. The program doesn’t train people to become police officers, but rather exposes them to the inner workings of law enforcement.

“We open up our department so people can see what we do on a daily basis,” said Sgt. Timothy Morrell, who oversees the program. “It breaks down barriers between police and the community and helps them understand what we’re confronted with.”

Morrell said 14-20 officers participate throughout the length of the program. Different topics are covered each week, including criminal and motor vehicle law, search and seizure, patrol and criminal investigation techniques, use of force, community policing, crime scene processing, police canines and specialty units of the department. There will be a mix of lectures and hands-on demonstrations.

People of all backgrounds are encouraged to participate, Morrell said. The program has been in place since 2012, with last year’s being aimed at Westbrook’s Iraqi population. 

“We wanted to foster a working relationship with them and understand their backgrounds and they can understand how the police force works in America,” Morrell said.

The Westbrook Police Department has been working to make immigrants and refugees feel at ease around police following an August 2016 hate crime. Hate speech against Muslims was found at the Westbrook Pointe apartment complex, causing many in the community to feel threatened and unwelcome.   

Police Chief Janine Roberts was recognized by the University of Maine School of Law in March 2017 for her work in welcoming immigrants in Westbrook. She said it’s important to build trust with new Mainers, and Morrell said the Citizens Police Academy helps do that.

Aside from immigrants, Morrell said the class consists of retirees with an interest in law enforcement and college students studying criminal justice.

“College students find that it’s one of the most informative courses they take in college,” he said.

The class size will be limited to 20 people on a first-come, first-served basis. The program is free, but participants must fill out an application on the police department’s website or in person and submit to a background check. All classes will take place at the Public Safety building at 570 Main St.

Morrell said he hopes the program helps people better understand police officers and why they make the decisions they do. He said he also wants to promote the strengths of the department and how Westbrook officers spend  time on community building and problem solving. 

While the program is typically attended by people who already trust in the police department, Morrell said he’d love to see more participants who are wary of police. He said he’d like to help people better understand that police officers are there to help them.

“That’s why we have these classes – so we can break down biases and barriers,” Morrell said. “We’re human beings, not robots.”

Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or kgardner@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @katevgardner.

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