On April 4, the Columbia Heights Police Department (CHPD) started their first Citizens Academy. Once a week for the month of April officers and city residents gathered in a classroom. As a bonus lesson, participants were also invited to a “practice demonstration” day, where they were invited to use the officers’ shooting range and simulator, in a safe, regulated environment.
Each week focused on different aspects regarding the CHPD, training and community. Numerous officers provided presentations, experiences, tours and answered an array of questions during the four classes. With around 25,000 calls on a busy month, they have lots to talk about. Calls range from concerned citizens to high-priority emergencies.
Bill Monberg, community policing coordinator, and Lenny Austin, chief of police, were asked why they wanted to start this program. Policing tactics are being questioned constantly across the United States; tensions rise while escalated situations have been made ever more public with through social media, instantly sharing live action events from cellular devices. Strong relationships between a police department and the surrounding community is vital for both parties. A bad experience with a cop can ruin someone’s opinion of all officers for life. As Captain Austin stated, “This is 100% a customer service job.” Through programs such as Citizens Academy, Coffee with a Cop, Bike Giveaway and Teen Academy, they hope to achieve their goal of a more connected community.
Austin explained how we, as residents of our communities, are the best people to know what is happening in our neighborhood. By communicating what you see to the police, you not only help their work immensely, but your neighborhood as well.
During the four classroom sessions, we were provided with numerous topics including; business structure, training, job titles with roles, use of force discussion, domestic assault, violent crimes, drug units, community policing and problem-orientated policing. We were introduced to several officers who all had presentations prepared and were professional with their answers to numerous questions.
During the first lesson, attendees were provided the option to tour the new police facility, built in 2009. The building showcased an impressive layout well suited for the department. As the one of the few Minnesota stations with a gun range within the layout, they are able to host several training workshops throughout the year. Their simulator runs you through high intensity-situations on a screen. Although this is showcased only on a screen, only having mere moments making a decision proves good practice with decision-making skills.
As the first Citizens Academy wraps up, Monberg sees room for improvement for next year’s second round. “I see us doing some mock situations to give people a better idea of what it is like to be a cop, perhaps setting up a mock pullover in the parking lot, so attendees can approach a car from the perspective of an officer,” he said. “Community policing is highly beneficial, and essential.”
Community policing was defined as a philosophy that promotes organizational strategies that support the systematic use of partnerships and problem-solving techniques to proactively address the immediate conditions that give rise to public safety issues such as crime, social disorder, and fear of crime. Citizens Academy is just a fraction of the work that is being done in this category, and statistics show it helps. Although the numbers have many variables, the crime rate in Columbia Heights has declined significantly for the past several years.
During the course, I was able to visit with other attendees of varying age ranges, who all had positive things to say about both the Columbia Heights Police Department and their first Citizens Academy. Most had attended out of curiosity mixed with support for the program.
Others had previously been in contact with the cops to aid in neighborhood situations. After a positive experience, they were compelled to attend to learn more about what happens at the station. All expressed being deeply invested in their neighborhood.
Next year the hope is to plan and see an even better Citizens Academy with their doors open, continuing their outreach to the Columbia Heights community.