Jacques Gilbert, a captain with the Apex Police Department, knows that some people have negative ideas about law enforcement, especially when it comes to interactions with African-Americans. Gilbert, 48, decided one way to deal with the issue was to encourage minorities to consider careers as police officers. Three years ago, he launched Blue Lights College as a seven-week police-prep course, and now the program includes a two-year option.
Q: What did you hope initially to accomplish with the program?
A: I wanted to give a snapshot of what it looks like to become a police officer. I spent one-on-one time asking, “Why do you want to be a police officer? What are you concerned about?” When they went into basic law enforcement training (BLET), they were prepared. It wasn’t an early exit for them. They had the tools to be successful.
But what I was missing was to have representation from every community. There weren’t many Latinos or African-Americans. What I found is many had received negative information from others saying, “You don’t want to do that job.” That was my own story. When I presented to many in my community that I wanted to police, it was like I said I wanted to do harm to people. And a lot of people let that stop them right there – what other people think.
Q: The two-year program started in August and includes athletics. Why is that?
A: I was watching a Carolina Panthers football game ... and the crowd was going wild, and what I saw in that crowd was diversity. Athletics was a universal language for people. I was already doing the education piece, so how could I marry education and athletics and come up with a college? I did a lot of research, three years’ worth, and worked with the state and the college board, and that was it.
We attract young men who play basketball who aren’t sure about policing but want to know more about it. Today we have 42 students, and we just played our first basketball game against Carolina Christian College.
Q: What does the two-year course entail?
A: The first year is a foundational course. We make sure they understand how to take online training, purpose policing, family foundation – all those things that might be a struggle for a police officer. The second year is all BLET preparation. You’re standing at attention, physical fitness preparation and all of those things. Then they’re ready for the police academy.
Q: How much does it cost?
A: We meet at New Horizons Church in Apex. We are tuition-free and depend totally on community contributions. This community (Apex) has been great so far. The churches have really come in and helped us out because our pillars are faith, purpose and trust.
Q: Why those three pillars?
A: We think they intertwine to make a good police officer. There has to be trust for police officers to be effective in the community. And then the whole faith piece – there’s an internal struggle that goes along with becoming a police officer during a career. With all the negative things they come against and the odd hours, I don’t think a lot of people realize the strain on families. So we believe that faith ... is the way to rise above your circumstances. I believe that God is, for us, our force to help us with those problems.
Q: How do students respond to the mission?
A: We have our classes, and we present those things. We’re not going to push away anyone who wants to come to our school, but this is our curriculum. It’s no different than if you go to Wake Tech or UNC. This is what we’re teaching. We don’t try to push it; we just present it and throw the seeds out.
Q: How do you find students?
A: It’s really just word of mouth. We have students from Puerto Rico – four young women and a young man. We have students from Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio. We’re targeting 18- to 20-year-olds. There are many who graduate from school but have no idea what they want to do. From the police academy side, we were losing a lot of candidates because they made poor choices between 18 and 20. Being a part of this college helps them stay on focus.
Q: Since 2014, how many Blue Lights students have graduated from the police academy?
A: Fifteen. I just want more youth to have this opportunity.
Q: Have other local law enforcement agencies been supportive?
A: Starting off, it was not well received because it was something different. Then the police chief in Siler City, Gary Tyson, heard about it, called me and said, “This is what we need.” Next, Chief Tony Godwin from Cary said, “I’m going to champion this for you because I believe in it.” So we have partnerships with Cary, Apex, Siler City and Raleigh police. They want those officers serving with them ... and look for them in the application process.
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Jacques Gilbert – Tar Heel of the Week
Born: Sept. 8, 1969
Raised: Apex. He’s a graduate of Apex High School.
Family: Married 22 years; has a 21-year-old daughter and a 15-year-old son.
Career: He’s been with the Apex Police Department for 27 years.
Fun fact: He used to be a competitive bodybuilder.
Awards: He got a 2015 Champions for Change award, presented at the White House, for his work launching the Rodgers Family Skate Plaza in Apex.