On the first night of the Citizen Police Academy, an annual program offered by the Bloomington Police Department (BPD), I noticed Officer Kiley Jarrett had a black eye. When I asked her about it, she explained that an intoxicated suspect became defiant and how she and other officers took him to the ground. During the struggle, the suspect started calling her names and reached for another officer’s weapon. “Then he punched me harder than I have been hit before,” she says. Jarrett stayed in the fight and subdued the suspect with assistance from fellow officers, never needing to reach for her own weapon.

Jarrett’s story demonstrated to me the dangers of policing right here in my hometown. Offered each fall since 2004, Citizen Police Academy meets once a week for 12 weeks and is open to all Bloomington residents age 18 and older. I attended the academy in 2016 with 12 other citizens to expand my knowledge of policing at a time when civilian shootings and officer deaths are an all-too-common occurrence. Attending the academy gave me a glimpse into what police officers do and how policing in Bloomington actually works.

Everyone on the force, from Police Chief Michael Diekhoff to the officers on the streets, frequently mentioned the police department’s commitment to community engagement, and Citizen Police Academy is part of that concept. I heard the idea of “policing your community the way you want to be policed” echoed many times by numerous officers.

“It is all about making a connection and building a relationship,” says Captain Steve Kellams. “Citizen Academy is about building our relationship with the community.”

People take the course for different reasons. “I’ve been concerned about excessive use of force by police,” says Trish Kerlé, an Indiana University professor who took the class with me. “By the same token, I’ve never had a relationship with the police and don’t have a good sense of their world, so I thought it was only fair to get educated in this regard.” This is a sentiment I shared.

We covered a lot of ground in 12 weeks, from learning how to take cover and fire soap-cap training rounds at paper suspects on the department’s indoor shooting range, thereby experiencing firsthand the stress of making split-second decisions, to riding with an officer on a tactical driving course in order to practice vehicle maneuvers and control. 

I also had the chance to ride along on a patrol with Officer Robert Skelton, which showed me that officers are problem-solvers with a high degree of discretion in their interactions with the public. They are, as Lieutenant Brad Seifers says, “thinkers, not thumpers.”

One call that stood out to me was in response to a domestic dispute. Upon arriving, Skelton and another officer on the scene realized the situation involved a father’s attempt to keep his 20-something, drug-addicted son clean for two more days so he could enter rehab. Instead of making arrests, the officers gave them some advice: Stay cool and hang on for rehab. I saw our officers not as authority figures enforcing the letter of the law, but as compassionate community members enabling citizens to find the help they need.

I, along with my classmates, gained newfound respect for the BPD through the academy. “The most impactful experience was simply how dedicated the officers are to providing a safe environment for us,” says classmate Will Lehman, an insurance specialist. “They risk their lives every day to protect us and make Bloomington a better place.”

My experience showed me that the BPD community-engagement model is one other cities can learn from, and that anyone interested in learning more about the BPD should consider participating in Citizen Police Academy. The class provides an open environment to ask questions and, through the demonstrations and conversations I had with officers, I discovered a depth to policing that goes far beyond citations and arrests.

“We have a really great department and I am proud of our officers,” says Chief Diekhoff. “I want to share that with the public.”

Stay up to date on the next Citizen Police Academy by following the Bloomington Police Department on Facebook. *

Nick Bauer, 28, is a graduate of Bloomington High School South and the Indiana University Kelley School of Business. He now works at Cook Medical on the video content team.