Citizen Classroom: 
Why police do what they do

single-meta-cal January 2, 2017

Huntsville Police train citizens and media on what it’s like to be a cop on the street

Dangerous, complex scenarios await, and as you rise from your chair and leave the meeting room at the Huntsville Police Academy, you half-expect to hear that “let’s be careful out there” admonition from the old TV cop show “Hill Street Blues” on the way out the door.

A day of simulated life-or-death incidents awaits participants in the “Why Do Police Do What They Do” program, which is organized, choreographed and well-acted by Community Relations Officers of the Huntsville Police Department.

“What you’ll see is what it’s like to be in the shoes of a police officer and see how you’d react,” says Lt. Stacy Bates, Public Information Officer for the Huntsville Police Department.

They are “real-life experiences,” according to Sgt. John Ware, that range from a surly driver pulled over for a traffic stop to a suicide attempt to an active-shooter incident. Participants, armed with fake weapons, must handle each with quick thinking and impeccable judgment.

“Situations under stress,” as Officer Chris Wellman calls them.

“You see these things in a movie. But life isn’t like a movie.”

(We’ll not divulge the specifics of each incident, based on actual events faced by police here and elsewhere, so as not to influence the decisions by potential future participants.)

On the second floor of the academy, in a room twice the size of an average school classroom, two videos are shown life-size on a floor-to-ceiling screen. The participants, armed with a laser-firing pistol, are to imagine themselves as arriving on the scene to help. They are faced with critical, split-second decisions when it comes to apprehending armed assailants and saving lives – those of innocent bystanders and their own.

What the participants are taught, it must become a matter of action, not reaction. That doesn’t mean shoot first, ask questions later. But it does mean being prepared to take drastic measures to assure safety. It’s a matter of controlling the situation, not letting it control you.

Outside there are scenarios with HPD Community Relations officers almost gleefully embracing the role of bad guy to put participants on the defensive. Negotiating with an armed man threatening suicide. Traffic stops that appear routine, but with peril looming in each one – as video of the actual incidents, later shown to class, prove.

To a person, the participants admit their hearts were racing and adrenaline was pumping, even it was just play-acting. Each is debriefed in a video interview, explaining his or her decision-making process.

As Wellman says, “You see these things in a movie. But life isn’t like a movie.”

“At the end of the day, all of the citizens who played the role of a police officer in each scenario left with a heightened awareness of the dangers and challenges of policing as well as a better understanding of why police officers do things the way they do,” says Huntsville Police Chief Mark McMurray. “I was amazed at how quickly most grasped the safety concepts we practice once they experienced one or two scenarios.”

The participants are a broad cross-section of the community in terms of diversity, in race, religion and age. The differences lead to some revealing and candid conversation related to police-citizen relationships, from previous experiences to guidance on how best to handle future encounters.

Huntsville resident Roseanna Cox  attended as an interested citizen wanting to learn more about police and citizen interaction.

“This training session really changed my perspective, shining a new light on police situations I’d seen on the news,” Cox said. “My heart was racing when I only had a few seconds to make a critical life or death decision. I would recommend this training to anyone – especially those who have ever had doubts about the actions of law enforcement. This scenario lets you put yourself in their shoes.”

The Community Relations department is seeking more opportunities to bring this program to the city at large.

“We’re not trying to change your opinion,” Ware says. “We’re just trying to give you a look at why we do what we do.”

Wellman keys on one word: Empathy. As he defines it, “Can I imagine going through what he’s going through?

“We want to put the public in our shoes,” Wellman continues. “And how better to perceive these events than to look at them from our perspective.”