Smithfield Herald

Selma reboots citizens’ police academy

Students in Selma’s Young Citizen’s Police Academy examine a fake crime scene.
Students in Selma’s Young Citizen’s Police Academy examine a fake crime scene.

After a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., shot and killed an unarmed 18-year-old this summer, viewing cops as bad guys became easier than ever.

The Selma Police Department wants to change the perception. The department has reinstated its Young Citizen’s Police Academy, a hands-on program in which Selma residents learn about the duties of their police officers.

“Every time you turn on the national news, you see the police doing that and the community responding,” Selma Police Chief Richard A. Cooper said, referring to shootings of unarmed civilians. “We’re just trying to get them to understand we’re not the bad guys.”

The first academy wrapped up this past week. During weekly classes, patrol officers and detectives talked about their responsibilities. On Sept. 30, Sgt. Don Wilson spoke briefly about gangs – what defines one, which ones are most prevalent locally and how to spot a gang member.

Gangs operate on a “blood in, blood out” mentality, Wilson said, meaning a gang member must spill someone else’s blood to get in and his own blood to get out.

“The way of getting into gangs is hard, and it’s almost impossible to get out of them,” Wilson told the class. In fact, most gang members die before they turn 30, he said.

If enough citizens express interest, the department might offer the program twice a year.

Priority for enrollment goes to Selma residents ages 13-17, but if there’s room, business owners and other adults can apply. The class is limited to 20 participants; 14 were in this fall’s session.

Dawn Hooks of the Selma Housing Authority enrolled with coworkers to learn how to spot drug and gang activity in the town’s public housing complexes. She said she has learned a lot so far.

“I think everybody should take (the class),” Hooks said. “I think all the children should take it.”

Each week, the class took part in a hands-on learning activity. For the gang lesson, students examined a fake crime scene; they had 10 minutes to observe and write down what they saw.

The point of the exercise was to show hard it can be to find the facts in varying witness accounts of what happens at a crime scene, said Detective Jamie Hughes.

“We get called to a scene and speak with witnesses,” he said. “They tell us what they saw, and we have to line that up with evidence. “What we do is look at all 10 of those accounts, and there are parts of those stories that will match up.”

The academy has helped Briana Nunez better understand crime in her hometown. Nunez, a student at Smithfield-Selma High School, said she is considering a career in law enforcement, as a detective or narcotics officer.

“It’s pretty interesting; it’s fun,” she said of the academy. “I’ve learned a lot of new things about all the crime that goes on around the area.”