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Peoria Citizen’s Police Academy Bridges Cops And Community

police academy
(Photo by Annika Cline - KJZZ)
An employee explains the 911 dispatch system during a session of the Citizen's Police Academy.

Law enforcement is in the national spotlight, in conversations about officer-involved shootings, and ways to improve tense relations between police departments the communities they work in.

Some police departments, like Peoria, have programs that aim to improve community relations. On of these is the Citizen’s Police Academy.

Standing in full blue uniform, Commander Douglas Steele sounded more like a teacher as he addressed a room of about 30 people seated at long tables, asking “What are we going to do?” 

They were working out a hypothetical problem- an elderly woman has had multiple windows broken in her home.

“And again, nothing’s wrong here guys, you can throw out anything,” Steele said to the group. “We can say we’re going to make it all bulletproof.”

The class laughed.

“We can’t afford it, but that’s definitely something to come up with,” Steele said.

The group ranged from young adults to retirees. They’ll meet once a week for three months to learn about the department from top to bottom.

“They just see it in a whole different light,” said Lisa Mattox, who coordinates the academy.

She said it’s been been offered for more than two decades as a way to educate the public about what police officers do every day.

“We see things in the media and we might not be seeing the whole picture,” she said. “But we form an opinion from that one scenario.”

That’s become more of a concern for police departments everywhere as cities across the country make national headlines for extremely tense relations between law enforcement and community members. And it hasn’t been lost on the participants here, like Robert Sheets.  

“The things that are going on nationally with law enforcement, that probably pushed me into coming to this class a little more, just to find out how the police feel about the things that are going on with Black Lives Matter and so forth,” Sheets said.

The questions the class asks are very specific to their neighborhoods. Sheets said he has concerns about increases in officer response times in Peoria, and the department’s struggle to hire more cops.

“The city of Peoria is growing so rapidly, especially up north, and they definitely need more cops, for sure,” he said.

Last week they covered that topic. And this week they went behind the scenes of the number everyone knows, but hopes they never have to call - 911.

“I wanted to see the different areas of the department and have a better sense of what happens behind the scenes,” said Amy Nichols, a mother and an author who unfortunately has been on the other side of the call a few times. 

“There’ve been traffic accidents and then a couple medical situations,” she said. “So, yeah, it’s nice to get to see the people behind the scenes. It’s comforting, actually.”

In coming weeks, they’ll learn about crisis negotiation, vehicle stops and body cameras. Last month, the department issued a camera to every officer in the field. Even though the academy is about law enforcement, Commander Douglas Steele wants the class to know that real solutions are often not about force at all.

“Put more cops, put more cops - we call it cops on dots. Guys that doesn’t solve a problem,” Steele said to the group. “I can make the problem move. Hey I have a crime problem, put all the cops there, and all I do is displace it.”

For the elderly lady with the broken windows, the group came up with all kinds of solutions that don’t have to do with cops on dots, like asking if she attends a church that could help fix her windows and set her up with a security system.

Lisa Mattox said when the group graduates from the Citizen’s Academy, they can become one of those solutions by talking to other residents about what really goes on in the department.

“They’re able to answer questions that the public has, share information, put them in contact with us,” she said.

And she said this year they created an alumni association for graduates of the program. Their first order of business was to raise money for victims of crime.

News The Show
Annika Cline was a producer for KJZZ's The Show from 2014 to 2019.