If you grew up watching “Starsky and Hutch,” “Die Hard,” “Beverly Hill Cop,” “Law & Order” or “CSI,” you probably think law enforcement looks pretty cool—dangerous at times, but glamorous and exciting.
Now, thanks to the Harrisburg Bureau of Police Citizen’s Police Academy, a group of city residents knows the truth. Law enforcement isn’t like the movies or TV, but it’s still pretty cool.
The academy was established to build stronger community bonds between the Harrisburg Bureau of Police and the people who live here. Led by Capt. Gabriel Olivera and Cpl. Joshua Hammer, the 10- week course covers topics such as traffic stops, the history of policing, crime scene investigation, the coroner’s office and the legal system. The program is free to applicants who are Harrisburg residents and can pass a background check.
I met both of those criteria, so became one of about 20 students in the 2018 class.
Over 2½ months, we heard from leaders and key players in law enforcement, and we were treated to tours—the Dauphin County Prison, the coroner’s office, the county call center and the courthouse. The class was enlightening, and we all learned a great deal about our police and the legal system.
Here are the top 10 things I learned as a student of the Citizen’s Police Academy.
1. Law enforcement isn’t very glamorous. More often, it’s grueling, stressful and, yes, even boring. For example, TV makes 9-11 call centers look like exciting hubs of drama and action. In truth, the operators sit in cubicles for hours, often answering calls that are non-emergency complaints, false alarms or even bids for attention by lonely people. Nonetheless, their training and knowledge prepare them for when there is a real emergency or disaster.
2. I have a morbid curiosity…about the morbid. I especially enjoyed visiting the coroner’s office. While we didn’t see an autopsy, we did see some death scene photos and learned about how the team performs investigations. It’s fascinating how much they can tell about things like time and cause of death before the autopsy even starts. Speaking of which, we got a tour of an autopsy room, where we saw cabinets filled with containers of eyeballs, brains and other evidence to be used in ongoing and unsolved cases.
3. Not all prison inmates wear orange jumpsuits. In fact, at the Dauphin County Prison, inmates don’t wear jumpsuits at all. Their attire is more like hospital scrubs, and they are color-coded—orange for male general population, green for male trustees who have jobs in the prison, red for male treatment inmates and so on. Female inmates in the general population wear beige “scrubs.” As someone who loves fashion and color, that would be punishment enough for me.
4. Prison inmates can be incredibly creative and resourceful. We were treated to a display of “contraband,” forbidden items that have been confiscated from inmates. There were drawings on both paper and cloth (mostly pillowcases) that could pass for professional illustrations and artwork. There was a Monopoly-type game (“Jailopoly”) someone had made out of paper and cardboard, compete with play money and dice (likely made from water-soaked paper pressed into squares and inked with pens or pencils). Perhaps most inventive was a small cage—designed to catch rats or mice—made from plastic cutlery that was crudely fused together. MacGyver would be proud. I went to summer camp when I was a teenager, and all I ever made was a birdhouse out of popsicle sticks.
5. Police have to know math and physics. There is a whole team of specially trained police officers whose job it is to analyze and determine the cause of traffic accidents. They use algorithms that involve both math and physics to assess things such as how fast the cars involved were going, the precise point of impact, and whether the driver attempted to slow down or stop before the collision. The discussion about this was very technical and complex, but it did make me want to slow down and be extra careful on the road.
6. Not all police dogs (K-9 officers) look alike. Whenever you see police dogs on TV, it seems like they’re always German shepherds. I guess this dates back to the 1950s and the TV show, “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin.” However, the Harrisburg K-9 unit includes other breeds of herding dogs, including the Dutch shepherd and the Belgian malinois, known for their protective instincts, high intelligence, eagerness to serve/work and endurance. We met with Officer Don Bender and his dog, Zoe, a Dutch shepherd. She demonstrated her ability as a substance-sniffing dog, and it was clear that she enjoyed showing off. The dogs, which are considered officers and have actual badges with official badge numbers, live with their human partners and their families. As a dog lover, I had to resist the urge to hug Zoe and smother her with kisses and baby talk. I suspect she was grateful for that.
7. I have some mad acting skills. We role-played police officers delivering bad news to a family, and I got volunteered to play the mother of a young woman who died from a drug overdose. Police Chaplin Gary Lathrop played my husband. He instructed me to react how someone might do so in such a situation. So, I started with denial (“No, you’ve made a mistake. We just had dinner with her. She is at work.”), then moved to anger and sorrow. I really got into the part and went full DeNiro (never go full DeNiro) and let loose with some R-rated language. Nonetheless, everyone said how convincing I was in the role. I’m thinking of having head shots made up and getting an agent.
8. Courtroom legal cases aren’t nearly as exciting as on “Perry Mason.” The judges and lawyers are simply capable, knowledgeable and hardworking professionals who work together to carry out the law, not colorful personalities verbally sparring and in constant conflict. While every good TV/movie courtroom drama features a jury, the vast majority of cases in Dauphin County are resolved without 12 angry (or not-so-angry) men (and women). The judges have sentencing guidelines they use to ensure a fair and reasonable sentence for offenses and offenders, and they seldom bang the gavel and scream, “Order in the court.”
9. Police are people. I’ve always been a little intimidated by the police—the spotless uniforms, the business-like attitudes. But all of the officers we interacted with were nice, courteous and enthusiastic. They answered even our stupidest questions without judgment. They laughed and chatted with us and shared their stories with candor. I felt like I came away with some new friends who love the city like I do. However, I was a bit disappointed that none of the officers was a dead ringer for Chris Pine or Idris Elba. Clearly, I need to watch less Netflix.
10. I made the right career choice. I admit that, when I was a kid, I thought it would be fun to be one of Charlie’s angels or like Heather Locklear on “T.J. Hooker.” But the crazy hours, the uniforms (I really like my heels and matching purse), the stress of knowing that your work often is a matter of life and death, and the discipline and rigorous training just aren’t for me. I’m better off writing. In the meantime, it’s nice to know that there are people like Capt. Olivera and Cpl. Hammer to do the job others won’t or can’t.
The Harrisburg police are planning to offer another Citizen’s Police Academy program in September. Watch for an announcement at www.hbgpd.com.