Citizens police academy in 27th year

By Julie Gerke

It didn’t take long for the first doughnut joke: “You know why cops like doughnuts?” asked Jacksonville Police Department (JPD) Lt. Mark Lonergan. “’Cuz we’re smart.”

The humor broke the ice for a group of 17 people — retirees, social service workers, state employees, a minister, a police intern and me (!) — who make up the Jacksonville Police Department’s citizens police academy class, the first since the pandemic brought an unexpected end to the 2020 program.

The 12-week class is in its 27th year (27 ½, if you count the uncompleted class), sharing the ins and outs of police work with the general public. Many of the graduates subsequently train as police volunteers — helping with parades, for instance — and last year donated 1,700 hours of time to the department.

The academy group meets for three hours each week, usually at the police department. The first week included tours of the police department, dispatch center and the county jail, and a department overview from JPD Chief Adam Mefford.

The second week brought a visit to the main courtroom of the Morgan County Courthouse and a broad discussion of responsibilities from Morgan County State’s Attorney Gray Noll and court security officer Luke Tapscott.

It was a week 2 presentation that started to show “the inside look at things our officers do and why we do it and how we’re perceived,” Mefford said.

Det. Luke Poore, who started as a patrol officer 13 years ago, shared a PowerPoint presentation that included social media videos of large, local overnight fights; scenes from the Ferguson, Missouri unrest of 2014-2015; drone footage of an out-of-control neighborhood gathering in Macomb; and an unprovoked attack on a motorcycle officer in Mexico who was doused with fuel and set ablaze during an anti-brutality protest.

Officers, wearing protective equipment similar to a high school athlete, faced knives, box cutters, Molotov cocktails and guns. Armed with traditional guns, police also had weapons loaded with bean bags instead of bullets and extendable batons instead of rigid ones.

Officers using the non-lethal guns aim for mid-torso or leg, and the bean bags hurt enough “it’ll change [an offender’s] mind real quick,” Lonergan said.

West Central Joint ETSB Dispatch uses a variety of computer programs to track incident sites; origination of 911 calls; and assign fire, police or ambulance response. Drones — small units with propellers — are operated from the ground by an officer with a handheld controller that includes a video screen. The drone can be flown high above a soybean field to locate a missing person, see what has caused an unexpected highway backup, or provide a look at an unsafe environment without putting an officer in immediate danger.

The drones can be pricey, anywhere from $800 to thousands of dollars. One JPD drone was purchased using a $10,000 donation from the citizens academy alumni association, Poore said.

In separate discussions, the men readily acknowledged high-profile cases across the country in which officer actions led to serious civilian injuries and death. There’s “nothing good cops hate more than bad cops,” Mefford said. “Our officers are very professional here.”

The public perception has “really crippled recruiting and hiring nationwide” for police departments, Mefford added. Ten years ago, he would see 100 applicants for 10 jobs. Last year, that number had dropped to 35.

Since becoming chief, Mefford has pushed for more interactive programs, so police and residents know each other as people and not adversaries. JPD has an annual teen academy in the summer; has increased its social media outreach; adopted businesses, schools and parks so officers are familiar with routine behaviors; works with community agencies to find help for those who need help; and has more foot patrols. COVID-19 restrictions affected many of the programs to some degree, including an east-side substation opened with cooperation of the Morgan County Housing Authority and NAACP. There, officers hosted cookouts and Easter egg hunts as well as helping with everyday needs like bicycle repairs.

The root of the efforts, Mefford said, is “working together within the community to make a place better and safer.”

Next week: A discussion on domestic violence and how traffic stops are conducted.

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