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What I learned attending GRPD Citizen Police Academy 2013

I spent 10 weeks exploring the GRPD with officers. They let us ride in their cruisers, play with explosives, and attacked us with their canine unit. I gained a deeper understanding of the Grand Rapids community by mingling with both officers and citizens.
Sgt Matt Janiskee and Lt Mark Ostapowicz joking around with the class.

Sgt Matt Janiskee and Lt Mark Ostapowicz joking around with the class. /Raheeq Al-Zaidan

2013 Citizen Police Academy Information

Contact Lieutenant Mark Ostapowicz for inquiries and academy applications.
The classes we had included Traffic Stops, Crime Analysis, Internal Affairs, Special Response Team, Forsensics, Use of Force, Criminal Law, Canine and Vice Units. For the full weekly commentaries and picture galleries, visit this page.
We met with several officers who showed us their weapons, explosives, canines and their cruisers.

We met with several officers who showed us their weapons, explosives, canines and their cruisers. /Raheeq Al-Zaidan

Active participation in the learning process was always encouraged.

Active participation in the learning process was always encouraged. /Raheeq Al-Zaidan

I’ve never willingly walked into a police station, certainly not one in a foreign country. I was nervous to be a Middle Eastern journalist meeting with American law enforcement officers. Citizen Police Academy sounded like a perfect trap to trick unsuspecting tourists into a secured room before shipping us to the Gitmo Bay. However, my experience at the Grand Rapids Police Department proved to be both entertaining and enlightening.

I was intrigued when I discovered what their free 10 week program promised. The classes included visits from the Special Response team, forensics detectives and well-loved canine unit. I was excited, but admittedly nervous being around so many armed strangers. My worries were laid to rest by the hilariously open personalities of Lieutenant Mark Ostapowicz and Sargeant John Dorer. They joked around like brothers and quickly welcomed my fellow troublemakers at the academy.

Our class was filled with a diverse group of curious residents. Among them were a former female firefighter, retired school bus driver, defense attorney and block captain. The level of sass in our group would have been enough to thwart lesser men, but Ostapowicz and Dorer handled our intrusive questions with ease.

They didn’t seem phased by anything, even when they were bluntly told that some officers in their department are non-nice individuals, in slightly less polite terms. Ostapowicz just smiled.

“We’re still human, and no one’s perfect," he says. "We try to hold our officers to the highest standards but sometimes, people slip up.”

I was surprised by his continued honesty and the frankness of all the officers that we met. I valued the open and educational nature of this program. We were strongly encouraged to actively participate in the learning process. In order to teach us about traffic stops, they let us maneuver a police cruiser around an empty parking lot. We passed around explosives and slipped into 80-pound bomb squad suits. In the last week, they carefully passed around baggies filled with drugs that cost more than most of our vehicles.

While I mostly intended to lurk in the corner, scribbling notes and snapping pictures, I found myself participating. I eagerly allowed their canine officer Izzy to latch onto my arm during a demonstration, under Officer Darren Geraghty's watchful command. I spent Halloween on a 12-hour night shift riding along with Officer Stevens, and I shot every virtual person in sight when we were in their realistic scenario training room.

The classes were fun, but laced with frightening realizations. When we were shown dachcam footage and crime scene photographs, I found myself worrying about what humans are capable of. They handled our concerns with professionalism and a lot more humor than I would have. 

Some of us struggled to process all the violent statistics that we saw, and the officers warned us to not become jaded.

"We’ve seen the worst that this species has to offer. Don’t let that happen to you. Take a breath and enjoy life,” says Lieutenant Patrick Merrill.

The officers were honest about the repercussions of their work, but definitely left their egos behind.

“Hostage negotiation is 90% listening and 10% talking," Sargeant Matt Janiskee wryly explained when we learned details about the Roderick Dantzler case. "If you've got children or if you're married, you're already trained in hostage situations." 

The 10 weeks quickly came to an end.

“Hopefully, your knowledge and perception of the police department has changed for the better,” Dorer said at our graduation ceremony.   

"We hope that you will be ambassadors in your community, and share what you’ve learned with anyone who’s curious,” added Ostapowicz.

Chief Kevin Belk thanked us, and gestured towards the officers.

“They do it because they love it, they enjoy their interaction with civilians and,” he explained, “sometimes, duty wears on officers, and it comes at a physical cost," he said. "But they will always try to make a difference in the community.”

I left the GRPD Citizen Police Academy with a newer understanding of officers and the community they protect and serve. I never thought that my travels would lead me to spending so much time with American officers, but I truly enjoyed my time with the GRPD. If you want the full uncensored weekly commentaries and picture galleries, you can find them at The Sandbox Report.

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