Saturday, March 28, 2009

Police and Thieves

Note: I just "graduated" from Madison's nine-week Citizen's Police Academy. In a nutshell, it's a series of three-hour classes where the cops bring in someone from each division to talk about different aspects of the Madison Police Department. It's strictly an educational thing -- there's no authority or badge or firearm you get for participating. But I learned a lot, and I would recommend the class to anyone who's interested in the way the department works.

At any rate, Public Information Officer Joel Despain asked me to pen a piece about my experience in the class for the MPD newsletter.

The evening after leaders from the Madison Police Department and the city press corps sat down last summer to talk over the increasingly frustrating communications gap surrounding the stranger homicides the department has been investigating, I half-jokingly wrote, on my blog, that the whole thing reminded me of, "a massive, gloves-off counseling session between a married couple that hasn't spoken in months."

There were certainly more than a few uncomfortable moments as, one by one, the sides aired their grievances. There are likely a few issues we’ll never come to a complete consensus on. But at the end of the day, we were able to agree on a few crucial points.

While our methods may differ, the media and the police share a set of common goals—we strive to keep the public informed, and in keeping them informed, we strive to keep them safe.

But more importantly, furthering those ends requires keeping an open line of communication and maintaining a sense of trust between all parties. Like any other relationship, the link between cops and reporters can’t be taken for granted, or else it will fall apart entirely. It’s something we have to work on together, constantly.

That kind of effort doesn’t come easy when a tight city budget scales back the overtime that’s available or waning ad revenues lead to yet another round of layoffs in the news room. It’s certainly more efficient in terms of man-hours to deal with each other as faceless voices on a phone line, but that kind of nuts-and-bolts approach does a disservice to the hardworking parties on either end, as well as the people we’re supposed to serve.

So when I heard about the opportunity to enlist in the Madison Citizen’s Police Academy, I seized on it eagerly. If nothing else, I figured it would be a chance to get to know a few more of the faces that work beyond the public’s realm of perception and learn how they do their jobs.

And I certainly got that chance, but more importantly, the citizen’s academy leant me a deeper understanding and appreciation of the depth at which our police department operates. Granted, my perspective on the department’s goings-on is still limited, but I was awed by the competence, dedication and attention to detail the public servants our class met bring to their jobs.

Viewed from the outside, the police department appears to move like some sort of autonomous, headless beast (much how the media appears to operate, from an outsider’s perspective). But on a closer approach, one begins to grasp the number of levels that have to mesh in order for the department to work, from the beat cops that show up at a crime scene to the investigators that figure out what happened to the Crime Response Program that comes in and helps the victims start to pick up the pieces.

Again and again throughout the citizen’s academy, I had these kinds of Eureka moments. It certainly makes sense that Madison has a need for a group that helps crime victims cope with the turmoil they’ve been through, or a gang task force that knows more about how gangs operate than the gang members themselves, or a unit that focuses on the well-being of the officers themselves as they cope daily with stressful situations everyday civilians go out of their way to avoid.

But these vital programs go unnoticed and unappreciated by most civilians, until recently myself included among them.

So it was, in going to these weekly classes, I came to expect to be surprised by what the various presenters had to offer, and I was never disappointed. I also had the chance to surprise a few of them as well, as those who came to know me as something of a deadeye with a 9-mil can attest to.

But while the evening at the MATC training range was certainly the most exciting of the classes, it was informative as well. I was more than a little alarmed to learn I had honed my skills with a firearm on video games at bars that are more technologically advanced than the simulators we train our own police force on.

The understanding and respect I took away from the nine-week course will do more than just help me as a journalist. While the Madison Citizen’s Police Academy should probably serve as a prerequisite for any reporter in this city, the benefits I took away as a civilian are universal to any citizen of our city.

I owe my thanks to Lt. Melissa Schiferl for organizing the class, to the various presenters for their candor and taking the time to share their world with us and to the Madison Common Council for having the wisdom to resist one city leader’s attempts to gut this gem of a program during last fall’s budget process.

As police and media, we will have our inevitable misunderstandings, arguments and even occasions where we have to call each other out for being out-of-line. But if we can continue to build the relationship between cop and reporter, we’ll be able to settle those disagreements with a heated discussion over a brew instead of a cold war.

1 comment:

Pop said...

If you don't blog, you lose your following... Simple logic.