Criminal Justice

Citizen Police Learn Safety is a Community Concern

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January 15, 2014 by Hilary Powell

Some Gary officials say they want residents to know safety is not just a job for police officers. The city is using the classroom to be proactive about community safety concerns.

Linda Cobb recently moved back to Gary after a decade away.

“I can look outside my window and see the Gary police department,” she says.

Despite the proximity, Cobb says she often feels a gap between cops and citizens.

“I hear a lot of things about police that are not encouraging,” she says.

A classroom full of 20 students is one way officers hope to chip away at the public mistrust of the police.

The Citizens Police Academy is a joint effort between Gary Police and Indiana University Northwest police where the officers answer to residents.

“We want to be transparent so they know what we’re doing,” says Patricia Nowak, chief of police for the Indiana University Northwest campus. “We figure if they can get a good idea of what we do, then we can better figure out what they need. We know each other not as just officer and citizen but in a different more warmer atmosphere.”

The 10-week class gives students a behind–the-scenes look at how a police department works.

The start of the second class comes three months after a report released from the Indiana state police’s Gary Technical Assistance Team commissioned by Governor Mike Pence.

The report criticized the city’s allocation of police personnel, calling it “not based on calls for service or community needs.”
In the classroom, Cobb says she can finally confront everyday questions she has for law enforcement.

“There are so many questions I have about why police do what they do or why they do certain things I don’t think they should do,” she says. “I have had questions about simple stuff like why do police run red lights and there is no emergency? Or, why does it take so many police to stop one person.”

“A lady in our last class asked us why there are so many police officers back-up on a traffic stop,’” says class leader Sergeant Melvin Blakely. “There is only one person in the car. Why are there so many officers? Officers actually don’t know exactly what’s in the vehicle, or what type of person you’re dealing with.”

The group meets once a week on the campus of Indiana University Northwest, and perhaps it is fitting: Officials say the purpose of the group is learning — for both the police and the public.

“That’s what these classes are for — for you to learn more about the judicial system, the courts making sure that your rights aren’t being violated,” Blakely says. “We are not going to predict how you feel about police officers; every police officer is not the same. You can come to the academy and actually learn.”

Students and officers giggle and exchange jokes in the classroom — an environment established to break down barriers and build up trust.

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