For many, the two biggest influences on the perception of law enforcement come from two sources: the news media and entertainment television.
But according to Eric Olsen, assistant chief of police at Stony Brook University, those are possibly the two worst sources to give the average citizen an accurate idea of what really happens on the streets.
“We all see how police interaction is covered in the media today,” Olsen said. “We thought it was important to make a connection and interact with the students.”
So in fall 2016, Olsen helped start the Stony Brook University Citizen’s Police Academy. The interactive 12-week experience is aimed at giving members of the campus community real-world insight into the daily functions and responsibilities of law enforcement personnel — from actual law enforcement personnel.
Students who participate in the program are introduced to basic law enforcement concepts such as police ethics, community policing, emergency management operations and investigations. They also get to participate in interactive scenarios involving defensive tactics, vehicle and traffic stops, deadly physical force, FATS (Firearms Training Simulator) and active-shooter incidents. The goal of the Citizens Police Academy is to provide a broad overview of law enforcement and strengthen the bond between the police department and the campus community.
“This was a really useful experience for me, especially the hands-on part,” said Jaisy Lau ’21, a dual information systems and psychology major who attended the program. The experience especially resonated with Lau, as she is considering becoming a digital forensics analyst.
A recent class focused on crime scene investigation, where guest speaker Mike Cunningham, a retired detective and 26-year veteran of the City of New York Police Department, led a class of 13 students through an actual homicide investigation. Using official crime scene photos, Cunningham, who currently works for the Department of Homeland Security, took students through a room-by-room, clue-by-clue investigation, asking for observations and pointing out important clues along the way. He also helped students gain insight into the minds of both the victim and the perpetrator as the class logically re-created the series of events.
“TV makes forensics seem interesting, and it is, but TV is made for entertainment, not reality,” said Cunningham. “The show ‘CSI,’ which was one of the first of these kinds of shows, was great for the field of forensics because it created a lot of interest among young people, but it also created preconceived notions such as that this kind of work is ‘sexy.’ It’s not a sexy job at all.”
To illustrate that point, Cunningham led students through a series of meticulous and time-consuming processes. These included the science of determining the trajectory of bullets and the correct way to harvest fingerprints and footprints from crime scenes — critical parts of crime solving, but not nearly as glamorous as Hollywood portrays.
“These guys are out there at all hours of the day and night, in freezing weather and humid 98-degree days, sometimes for 10 or 12 hours or even more,” said Cunningham, who has also co-authored the book Crime Scene Unit Management: A Path Forward. “On TV, everything is solved inside of an hour.”
Cunningham and Olsen also explored with the class a story that is familiar from recent news cycles: police-involved shootings. To do this, the officers again led the students through a step-by-step series of events that began with an emergency call and ended in tragedy, examining every extenuating circumstance and split-second decision that had to be made along the way.
“People don’t realize that police-involved shootings are processed more meticulously than any other crime scene,” Olsen said. “They are unbelievably documented. It’s extremely important to the police department that things are done right because they know they are going to be under intense scrutiny.”
In the end, the class was left not only with a better understanding of some of the events covered in the media, but also a better understanding of and appreciation for the people who investigate them.
“I wanted to experience things from the perspective of the police and not just follow what we hear in the media,” said business major Daneille Willis ’21. “It definitely gave me a better understanding.”
For biochemistry major Kevin Diebold ’21, the Citizen’s Police Academy “was a great experience to take a look at a crime scene investigation from the other side. It’s valuable to have the opportunity to do something like this.”
As for Cunningham, who has lectured on several occasions, the classes provide valuable in-person interaction with those who could be the next generation of law enforcement and an important and rare opportunity to provide real-world wisdom and influence.
“I enjoy interacting with students, and I think it’s really important,” said Cunningham after the class. “There are always a few students that enjoy forensics and it’s rewarding to give those people a positive introduction to the field and the police.”
“These interactions are really important,” echoed Olsen. “People get bombarded with news and opinions from both extremes and it’s hard to experience ‘the middle’ anymore, but I think the middle is where most of us really are. We’re hoping to provide the experience without the editorializing. These events help humanize the police.”
— Robert Emproto