By Marjorie Nesin
---- — Most times when Gloucester police interact with residents in their roles as officers, adrenaline runs high and small talk is sparse.
But for the past six Wednesdays, officers have met with citizens in a more positive environment — Gloucester’s Citizen Police Academy.
”People don’t call us up at 6 at night and say ‘hey my daughter just told a great joke at the dinner table, why don’t you come listen to it?’” Police Chief Leonard Campanello. “They call because there’s an emergency or someone’s having a bad time or there’s a guy to chase. The academy is an excellent way to get police officers and citizens in a positive atmosphere and show residents what we do on a daily basis.”
Wednesday night, 34 residents gathered in the Gloucester District Court house at 6 p.m. for their weekly classes, all anticipating the night’s course with fresh excitement. The group, which included young men in hoodie sweatshirts, retirees with grayed hair and even two city councilors — Melissa Cox and Paul McGeary — geared up for K-9 demonstrations and a hands-on firearms safety class.
Participants have grown familiar with each other over the six weeks, spending two hours a week in programming that included a tour of the police station and of Middleton Jail, a ride along with patrol officers, a course on crime scene investigation and fingerprinting. One night even featured Breathalyzer tests, during which five of the classmates acted as guinea pigs, drinking alcohol then performing sobriety tests and Breathalyzers for police.
Each of the five volunteers had secured rides home ahead of time and police carefully monitored their drinking, but the stories that emanated from that week’s course had the group giggling and snickering all over again a week later.
Along with creating fun memories, the course has acted as a valuable tool in teaching residents about police work, resident Ross Burton said.
”It’s one of the smartest things that’s been done around here in a while,” Burton told Lt. John McCarthy, who ran the program. “People have more empathy for what you guys go through when they see how difficult the job is, and no one has done anything to make it seem hard. You’d have to be stupid to not see how difficult it is.”
In groups of four, participants climbed a back stairwell to the police shooting range directly above the courtroom. Officers explained the basics of gun safety and helped the participants, some first-time shooters, work their way up to the handgun. Shots rang out in pairs, striking targets from ten yards back, about 40 yards closer than the farthest line police use for practice and testing.
Meanwhile, downstairs one group watched as police K-9 dog Trident trotted and zigzagged around the Fitz Hugh Lane Park on Harbor Loop, before digging a buried dummy gun from under a bush, where K-9 Officer Jerry Ciolino had hidden it. Next Ciolino demonstrated how the Polish-bred German Shepherd sics on a criminal, sending eager Trident bounding uphill toward the force’s other K-9 officer Chris Genovese.
Mako, the German Shepherd that joined the force in Genovese’s care as their first K-9 in 2011, whined and fidgeted as he waited for Genovese’s command to seek out marijuana hidden in a police room for demonstration purposes. Mako darted along one wall, his fluffy coat dropping hairs, before stopping in front of a metal desk and pawing the drawer open.
Mako is supposed to just sit when he finds drugs, but he sometimes gets a little over excited when his nose is on the prize, remembering the toys he received as rewards for finding drugs during training, Genovese said.
”He doesn’t know he’s searching for a drug, he’s just searching for toys in his mind,” Genovese said.
Participants pitched questions to the dog officers at an almost steady rate and learned Mako is trained to work in street patrol and also sniff out numerous drugs including, ecstasy, crystal meth and heroin. Trident is trained in patrol, but will take drug classes this month.
The dog officers explained that the dogs’ training teaches them to search for human scents or drug scents in a given area. Rewards like rubber balls and yummy treats help the dogs focus on their end results.
A major part of the program is having police available to answer questions, according to Chief Campanello, who brought the ideas for the program from his former job in Saugus and reinvigorated the Gloucester program, which had been nonexistent for years. Campanello credited Lieutenant John McCarthy with carrying out the programming. McCarthy has volunteered his time each week to run the program and officers from various departments have volunteered to teach at each class.
“I do not want to pay people for this program because I want to get people who are genuinely interested in helping out,” Campanello said. “The more we can foster interactions with the public the better it is. It’s also an exercise in transparency.”
Mayor Carolyn Kirk, who visited during the citizens police academy programming, touted the program as a success and step toward bridging a gap between police and the community, and “taking the fear factor away” from police interactions.
“I thank obviously the police chief for taking the initiative and the officers for their instruction, but also the citizens for participating,” Kirk said. “What struck me was when the chief suggested the idea, I was skeptical because I felt there’s a little bit of a division between the police and the community, and I wasn’t sure how many people would sign up. But it filled to capacity and it’s acting as a bridge between the police and the community.
”It’s an exhibit of community policing at its best,” Kirk said.
McCarthy said about half a dozen people have already signed up for the next class, slated for this fall. Some current students would like to return and complete the fall course, which police may expand to ten weeks, and others are encouraging friends to give it a shot.
”This has been the most fun I’ve had all winter,” Carly Osier said.
Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3451, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.