Citizen Police Academy Gives Citizens an Inside Look at Police Work

by Kayla Sosa

Ever wonder what it’s really like to be a police officer? Have questions that only an officer could answer?

You may want to consider signing up for the Citizen Police Academy through the Grand Rapids Police Department (GRPD). For 10 weeks, one night a week, a class of about 25 people learn about all the various departments and job duties of a police officer.

“We don’t teach people how to be police officers,” said Lieutenant Mark Ostapowicz. “We kind of give them a behind-the-scenes look at what we do, why we do things, how we do things.”

Ostapowicz said many people’s only knowledge about police work is what they see in movies and on TV.

“We dispel a lot of myths,” he said. “We usually change perspectives, even if you are really pro-police, when you leave after the 10 weeks, you’ll have a greater appreciation and understanding. And if you’re not pro-police for whatever reason, hopefully, we’ve shown you or given you some ideas on why things happen the way they do.”

Each class has a different focus, and various officers from all over the station come in to teach what they do. Students hear about traffic stops, crime stats, bomb team, vice team, K9 unit, crisis negotiation and more.

At the end of the course, students will have the option to try out a “use of force” simulator. This puts students in a police officer’s shoes during a life-threatening situation where they must make a decision immediately.

“You realize that there are times where an officer may be at the scene on a car accident or domestic violence and then all of a sudden they’re thrown into a dispute where a gun is turned,” Julie Niemchick, GRPD crime prevention coordinator, said. “They have to learn so quickly how to maneuver from one scene to another scene and know exactly when to pull that gun and when not.”

Niemchick started working for the GRPD in 2016 after decades of working for the Roosevelt Park Neighborhood doing crime prevention and community organization. She took the Citizen Police Academy as a citizen in 2008 to better understand the police and bring what she learned to her fellow community members and neighbors.

“Having that education behind you, you knew how to direct people to the proper unit that would meet the needs that they had at the moment,” Niemchick commented.

In her position now, Niemchick helps neighborhood organizations connect with the police department and makes sure those community leaders go through the academy as well.

Ostapowicz wants people to remember why they call the police, and the kind of calls police get all day.

“No one calls the police when they’re having a good day,” he said. “People call us at their worst, when they need help.”

Officers have to maintain a clear head in the midst of some tricky and sometimes messy situations.

“It is a tough job,” said Anita Elmer, records clerk who took the class in 2017. “You have to be ‘on’ constantly.’”

Students in the program also have a chance to go on a ride along with a GRPD officer, and the program ends with a graduation.

Niemchick is working area neighborhoods every day; she knows there is a significant portion of the Grand Rapids community that feels more tension than others with the police department.

“I encourage anyone, and especially I would encourage people who make decisions for an entire city or make decisions for a neighborhood, to go through something like this,” she said. “If you’ve never gone through those things or saw it through their lens, then how are you ever going to make a total judgment on something?”

Those interested can apply anytime. The class starts in September and goes through November. Click here to sign up.

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