Many people wouldn’t consider spending the night in an Austin Police Department patrol car to be a positive experience. But since the establishment of the police department’s Citizen’s Police Academy in 1987, nearly 2,000 have graduated from the academy and been in those patrol cars.
The academy, which will begin its 80th class on Feb. 11, consists of lectures, demonstrations, tours and hands-on activities featuring many of the department’s divisions.
“The main goal is to educate the community to where they get involved and gain a better understanding of how the police department runs and why we do what we do,” police department officer Jermaine Kilgore said.
The academy allows students to join a police officer on a 10-hour patrol shift and sit in the helicopter used for pursuits, search-and-rescue and firefighting.
“When you get that experience of doing a ride-along with an officer, you sit with them for 10 hours, so you really get to see from beginning to end what they go through,” police academy alumna Melinda Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez, who serves as president of the Austin Citizen’s Police Academy Alumni Association, said the program helps counter misconceptions the public may have about the police department.
“I feel as though the media sometimes tends to relay the negative about the police department, and they don’t always relay the good things about what they do,” Rodriguez said.
According to Rodriguez, one common assumption is that officers spend the bulk of their time ticketing drivers.
“In reality, there’s just far too much crime out there for them to be worrying about some of those petty things, such as speeding,” Rodriguez said. “They’ve got bigger fish to fry, so to speak.”
Each class of academy students is diverse and typically includes aspiring law enforcement officers, reporters, citizens and UT students, alumna Susan Reed said.
“We’ve always got a lot of orange T-shirts here,” Reed said.
Reed said the hands-on aspect of the program can be daunting, but the experience gives citizens a comprehensive education about police work.
“The officers are there to really give you an outstanding look at how they do their work every day, how they interact with citizens and how they interact with each other,” Reed said.
Officers from the SWAT unit, bomb squad, mounted patrol and forensics and homicide divisions give lectures and demonstrations in the weekly classes.
Jack Darby, former student in the academy and creator of the community policing website krimelabb, said riding along in a patrol car shed light on some of the department’s biggest challenges.
“One way they analyze their usage of time is how much time is committed to responding to calls and specific tasks they’re responding to versus being proactive,” Darby said. “It’s not like their free time is used for donuts and coffee, it’s used for productive purposes as well. A lot of times it’s working on resolving issues and things that are not immediate.”
According to Rodriguez, the program offers a valuable insight into the police department and its operations.
“You get to see what these people are dealing with day in and day out,” Rodriguez said. “You don’t want it to be over, you learn so much and it’s really just an eye-opening experience. It really changes how you feel and think about the police department.”