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You be the cop: Local police departments to offer citizen police school

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You be the cop: Local police departments to offer citizen police school

PORTLAND — Make no mistake about it, people find police work intriguing.

Police shows dominate prime-time television, with more "CSI" and "Law & Order" spin-offs than you can count. 

But there are many misconceptions about what actual police work entails. 

Yarmouth Police Department Lt. Dean Perry called it the "Starsky & Hutch" syndrome, where two guys are seen driving around in a Ford Torino getting into two or three shootouts a week.

"It's not really like that at all," Perry said. "Television tends to glamorize it. The paperwork is enormous."

To help dispel some of the most common misconceptions about police work and foster better communication and understanding between police and their communities, nine local police departments are teaming up with Southern Maine Community College's criminal justice program to offer a free Citizen Oriented Policing School.

Up to 30 residents from Portland, South Portland, Freeport, Falmouth, Yarmouth, Cape Elizabeth, Scarborough, Westbrook and communities served by the Cumberland County Sheriff's Department will be admitted to the program, provided they pass a criminal background check. People with felony convictions or extensive criminal backgrounds will not be admitted.

Organizers stressed that participants will not be trained as police officers and will have no law enforcement powers once the course is completed. 

Portland Capt. Ted Ross said he hopes the program will create police ambassadors, who can advocate and educate their neighbors about the realities and the dangers of police work.

"A lot of what we do is to enhance the quality of life," Ross said. "That all starts with communication. We can't do it ourselves."  

While television tends to glamorize police work, Ross said many people tend to base their opinions of police officers on what they witness on the street. 

It's not surprising then that people who get speeding tickets do not hold police in the highest regard. But Portland police must chronically battle the perception that they harass people on the streets for no reason. 

Ross said people will often see officers stop and question someone in the Old Port, but what they don't realize is that in many cases the officers are acting in response to a specific call in which the person fits the description of a suspect who may or may not be armed. Sometimes those interactions become physical. 

"The general observation is that we arbitrarily approached some guy," Ross said. "People are jaded at time because they don't have the complete picture."

Over the 10-week course, which will start Sept. 16, COPS participants will be trained in a variety of police duties, from a general overview to criminal investigations. Participants will also be educated about of use-of-force thresholds and be given a chance to test their nerves on the Firearms Training System, which generates "shoot or don't-shoot" scenarios. 

Classes will rotate throughout each of the nine communities, so participants can experience how police work differs between rural communities (where officers are more likely to respond to calls for animals on the loose than they are for violent criminals) and urban communities, where any call can turn violent. 

SMCC criminal justice instructor Bill Herbert, who will lead the sessions with South Portland Officer Linda Barker, said the school originated at a regional meeting of police chiefs, who have often discussed the merits of a citizen academy, but have been discouraged by the cost. If the collaboration is a success, Herbert said the communities may offer COPS on a regular basis.

"We would like to offer this on a fairly regular schedule," Herbert said. "I think this has some legs under it. We'll see."

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net