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Citizens Academy teaches residents about police job
"Margaret Langworthy's heart beat as rapidly as the shots fired in the scenarios that appeared on a screen at one end of the Firearms Training Simulator room.She and Debbie Palmgren each stood holding a 9mm Beretta handgun. But the guns shot invisible beams of light, not bullets, at the screen. In their scenario, they served a search warrant at an auto parts store suspected of selling stolen parts.When the man behind the counter ducked into the back, the footage moved so it appeared Langworthy and Palmgren were following him, searching up and down aisles. Suddenly, he rushed out of a doorway with a gun and dropped to a shooter's crouch. Langworthy shot him and the scenario ended, but her heart raced for minutes afterward. The adrenaline was incredible, she said. I can only imagine what those officers feel.Langworthy's newfound understanding of what the Federal Way police experience demonstrates the goal of the Citizens Academy, a 10-week class that included Monday's evening in the training room.We want community members to understand the police department, said Brooke Owen, the department's community resource manager, who coordinates the Citizens Academy. They get to know the men and women who are protecting the community, why they make the decisions they do.Owen, who used to run a similar academy for Renton police, started the Citizens Academy when she came to Federal Way police in 1996. Since then, she's held two academies a year, one in the spring and the other in the fall. The current academy is the eighth the police have held. An academy alumni group meets four times a year to learn about various police topics. Owen says she's already taking names for the ninth academy, which will begin early next year. The instructors are officers and other personnel from the department; topics covered range from traffic enforcement to defensive tactics.Offering citizens an inside peek into police operations has grown popular with police departments in the last 10 years, Owen said. Locally, Tacoma offered an academy first, followed by Renton. Other departments also aim for greater understanding from citizens.What department wouldn't want that? she asks.Most of what citizens believe about police comes from television police dramas such as NYPD Blue, she and other officers says. As you know, we're good at solving our homicides, she said. But we're still not as fast as on television. Or people's beliefs come from the news media, which writes and airs stories that aren't always flattering to police, said Cmdr. Dan Coulombe, who operates the firearms training room. As a result, some academy participants retain the image of officers as problematic enforcers who lash out at WTO protesters and participate in controversial shootings.(The academy) gives us a platform to demonstrate we're nothing shy of human, Coulombe said.Using the firearms simulator, he can also answer a popular question. On Monday night, Palmgren asked why officers don't shoot suspects in the arm or leg to disarm them. Coulombe said officers are trained to shoot at the chest because a shot there is most likely to stop a dangerous person and it represents the largest area of the body.Anyone try to shoot a moving hand? Coulombe asked. Acting Deputy Chief Ken Morgan, who teaches the patrol operations class, says academy participants might never have interacted with a police officer before. If they have, it likely wasn't under the best of circumstances and they might possess a negative view of police.Through the academy, citizens see police officers as human beings, not simply as rule enforcers.One thing I wholeheartedly believe is most people understand how much courage it takes to be a police officer today but I don't think they have a strong grasp of how much heart it takes, Morgan said.Some people sign up for the Citizens Academy because want to check up on the job the police are doing. Others simply want to satisfy a curiosity about what it's like to be a police officer.It's easy for people to be critical of the police department, Langworthy said. I want a better sense of what pressures they're under. We can often take days or weeks to make a decision concerning our jobs. Officers have to make split-second decisions. They operate under a stress level citizens don't ever encounter.Langworthy's husband, Dan, says he wanted to know more about police operations, considering the department takes such a large piece of the city's budget. As a taxpayer, it's kind of worthwhile to have a feeling if police are adequately trained, he said.Participant Lorraine Lee agreed.I think it's important from a citizen's viewpoint to see how officers are trained to react in their most stressful situations, said Lee, who couldn't pinpoint the most interesting part of the academy at the beginning of Monday's class.In the firearms training room, Coulombe puts academy participants in the role of an officer on the street. Before heading over to the read?, he recited statistics. Between 1989 and 1998, 682 officers nationwide were killed in the line of duty; 626 of them were killed with guns. The average gun battle lasts 2.7 seconds.During the scenarios, participants faced almost an equal number of incidents in which they were and weren't supposed to shoot. Sometimes their judgement was good; other times, it wasn't. Coulombe said he hopes participants learned that many shades of gray that exist in such situations.The point I'm trying to make is they're not always as clearcut as we want them to be, he said.The scenarios included chasing a disgruntled, armed employee in search of his boss through an office, and discovering that a van stopped for a traffic violation contained four armed men, who burst out the doors and start firing.As Lee left the firearms training room at the end of the evening, she was able to pick her favorite part of the academy - so far. How many weeks to go? This was the most interesting, she said. -------------------To sign upBrooke Owen, the Federal Way police department's community resource manager, is taking the names of people interested in participating in the next Citizens Academy, which will begin this spring. Topics covered include domestic violence, the use of force, defensive tactics, criminal investigations, patrol operations and traffic enforcement.Optional academy activities outside of the classroom include a tour of the Valley Communications Center in Kent, where police calls are dispatched, participation in the Firearms Training Simulator room and a ride-along with a patrol officer. Community members must be at least 18 years old to participate. Preference is given to those living or working within Federal Way. The academy is free. For an application, call Owen at 661-4730. "