The second joint Gahanna Division of Police and New Albany Police Department Citizen Police Academy has given 28 students an inside look at law enforcement, and leaders are excited about its future.
The course offered residents a glimpse of their communities through the eyes of the officers who protect them, developing long-lasting community relationships in the process.
Interim Gahanna police Chief Jeff Spence said the second 10-week session with New Albany ended March 14.
"When safety director (Mark Thomas) came on board, he had experience with Whitehall (Citizen Police Academy)," Spence said. "We have the basic concept down. New Albany had done it before, but struggled with manpower."
Spence said the first joint academy held last year was a "dry run."
"This year, we had a great class with a lot of really engaged students," he said. "It helps with outreach. Our relationship with New Albany police couldn't be any closer."
Spence said former city employees, including Sharon Montgomery who had served as Gahanna's records administrator, were part of the latest class, as was Gahanna City Council President Brian Larick.
"It keeps getting better and better," Spence said of the program.
Montgomery said the entire program was well done.
"It helps you see them (police) as real people, not just as people in uniforms," she said. "I highly recommend it."
Montgomery said she joined the academy for two reasons, with the main one being to learn what officers have to know to do their jobs.
She said she's a firm believer in not judging someone until you've walked in their shoes.
"The second purpose was to make connections," Montgomery said. "I've long advocated for laws about distracted driving. I accomplished both goals beautifully."
She said everyone who taught the sessions did a good job.
The academy's weekly, two-hour meetings covered topics such as traffic enforcement, laws of arrest and search and seizure, OVI enforcement, active-shooter situations, firearms training, 911 dispatching and street-drug identification.
"The one I learned the most was when they had a prosecutor come to talk about probable cause and reasonable suspicion," Montgomery said.
"Knowing how they have to work within the parameters of those was just overwhelming. I understood what I heard, but it's very complex," she said.
She also participated in a ride-along with an officer and highly recommends it for others.
In an active-shooter situation, Montgomery said, her takeaway was that more than being armed with a weapon, it's important to have something to throw at someone approaching you with a gun in order to distract them.
"I think I would've been surprised by how much they have to know, except I had been looking into training," Montgomery said. "I attend Ohio Peace Officers Training every month, so I was already aware of how much they need to know."
Montgomery said she wanted to understand what it is like when officers have to make an instantaneous decision to shoot or not.
The class tried shooting with rubber guns, then real ones at a shooting range.
"I tried to psych myself up, but I couldn't even handle the rubber gun," Montgomery said. "I didn't go to the shooting range. I learned something, but I'd have learned more if I could have handled it."
Thomas said the police department can never have too much involvement with the community.
"We need to take advantage of every opportunity to let them know what we do," he said. "It's one of those programs that opens everybody's eyes."
Thomas said it's just as beneficial to the officers to hear how citizens perceive them.
"It's just a great engagement tool," he said.
Thomas said the program has been so successful that Gahanna and New Albany police are looking at ways to expand it.
"There definitely will be a class next February," he said.
Thomas said he brought the idea for the academy to Gahanna after being involved in Whitehall's program.
"I saw the benefit of something like this," he said. "It bridges the gap between citizens and the PD (police department), and provides insight into the job on a day-to-day basis."
Thomas said it builds lasting relationships between the community and police department, and allows Gahanna to work in partnership with New Albany.
Thomas said a Citizen Police Academy Alumni Association could be formed.
"(Interim) Chief Spence is talking to graduates to see if there's someone who would like to head up an alumni association," he said. "An alumni association is something they have to take ownership of -- they have to get running."
If it were to be realized, the alumni would help the police division with community events, such as parades.
Thomas said Westerville has an extremely large alumni association from its academy program.
"Last year was our trial run, and we had things to work out," Thomas said. "Lessons were learned from the last one. Everyone was so engaged. Chief Spence and (New Albany Chief Greg) Jones are excited about where it's going."
Academy participants must live in Gahanna or New Albany and be 18 years old to register.
Thomas said an announcement would be posted on city websites, gahanna.gov and newalbanyohio.org, when enrollment is open for the next class.
This is New Albany's Vimeo video of the 2018 joint Gahanna Division of Police and New Albany Police Department Citizen Police Academy.