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Springfield 'Citizens Police Academy' Gives Inside Look At The Profession

"I was shot, my car was stolen, it was not a good night." So says Kathryn Harris while explaining her try at being a police officer. Tonight she got in a patrol car and pulled over an officer/instructor who went through a couple of challenging scenarios, like the ones police face regularly.

Harris is one of about 30 people currently enrolled in the local Citizens Police Academy. It's been taking place for over a decade. Its purpose is to give a hands-on look as to what goes into being an officer. While it takes about 500 hours of training to qualify as a real one - this is an abbreviated version, which includes ride-alongs, plus touring central dispatch and the county jail.

Harris says, "It has truly been informative - it gives you a whole new appreciation for the officers and what they do to protect and serve us." Kathryn Monroe is part of an alumni academy group, which meets regularly. Members issue parking violations and help control crowds at big events like the state fair. Monroe says she's gained valuable insight: "The media likes the big story - the one that's going to grab the most attention, so they're focused on police shootings or every time a police officer does something wrong." She says it's important to realize police have to make split second, challenging decisions.

listen to more from a conversation with Kathryn Monroe

Over in another room - people are doing just that. They're going through simulations where they interact with videos on a huge screen - they have laser guns that will track where the bullet hits if they decide to shoot a perpetrator. Sergeant Robert Davidsmeyer is sitting behind a computer running the program. He's a training coordinator for the Springfield Police Department. He says in situations where you are clearly in immediate harm with a gun pointed your direction - the only thing to do is aim and shoot to kill, somewhere between the heart and head. Otherwise? "It's not going to end the situation, they're still going to be able to fire the gun ... They may go and get a nasty infection a week later - that doesn't help me out here on the street, it's not going to save my life and it's not going to save any of the innocent people's lives," says Davidsmeyer.

The fact police would shoot at someone with a gun aimed in their face seems straight forward, but high profile cases where police have shot black men have not always been so clear. That's part of why Sunshine Clemons is here, she's organizing a Black Lives Matter chapterin Springfield, and wants a better understanding. "I think I've got six or seven pages so far of notes on everything from legal aspects to the K-9 units ... there's a lot I didn't know, so it's been very enlightening," says Clemons.

Back outside, Sergeant Gerry Castles is still in the training center's parking lot letting people pull him over. He's dressed in jeans, Converse sneakers, and a ball-cap. When he's not playing a bad guy, he's in charge of the neighborhood police officers - who oversee eight beats in Springfield where they're responsible for getting to know the particulars of an area. Many of the scenarios Castles goes through are hard to navigate. One time he might be angry and have a gun - another time he might just be plain agitated, like many of those police pull over every day.

Castles says much of an officer's job lands in a gray area, where quick decisions must balance safety while staying within the the law: "Here in the middle it's all gray, and that grayness is covered by the courts, and it's our jobs as police officers to keep up on that." For those wanting to better understand those gray areas, these classes could be a start. The effort got its start in the mid-70s in the UK. Since then it's spread across the US. According to the Illinois Citizens Police Academy Association, in this state alone there are over 30 communities offering the classes. Amid the current state of race relations and police mistrust, it seems as important an effort as ever.

This story is the first of an on-going series NPR Illinois is taking on - looking at how police and citizens are trying to better understand each other and improve relationships.

Rachel Otwell of the Illinois Times is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
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