Stanford Community Police Academy teaches what it’s like to be a cop

Every year since 2003, the Stanford Department of Public Safety has offered an academy for faculty, staff, students and others designed to demystify police work and build trust with the community.

Caleb Smith, a coterminal student in public policy, had no idea that the man driving the SUV he pulled over for a routine traffic stop in his borrowed Stanford police vehicle was packing a gun.

Smith, who donned a sheriff’s hat to get into the spirit of things, didn’t really have to worry. The man he pulled over was actually Michael Bermudes, a logistics staff member in the Stanford Department of Public Safety (DPS). The “weapon” Bermudes was hiding was a blue squirt gun. And, after a few minutes of griping at Smith, Bermudes’ gun was confiscated and he was easily subdued and placed in pretend handcuffs.

Police Academy

Officer Maria Gomez and Sergeant Jon Fong lead graduate student Caleb Smith in a scenario at the Stanford Community Police Academy. (Image credit: Kate Chesley)

The “stop” was a scenario included in the curriculum of the Stanford Community Police Academy, which was first offered in 2003. Each Winter Quarter, DPS teaches about 40 faculty, staff, students and other members of the community what it’s like to be a police officer. Participants attend a weekly, three-hour, interactive class for 10 weeks. They learn about everything from taking fingerprints to using a baton, from describing a face to a sketch artist to administering sobriety tests.

Potential dangers

Although the mild-mannered Bermudes was, in fact, no threat to Smith or his classmates, the point of the scenario was not lost. There’s nothing routine about a traffic stop for the Stanford police – or for any police officer for that matter. It’s fraught with potential danger. Officer Maria Gomez, for instance, taught Smith how to check a trunk before approaching a driver during a traffic stop to ensure that no one is hiding there.

Smith hopes the lessons he learned will help him when he returns to his hometown of Oakland to work in municipal government.

“Policing is a critical challenge in my hometown,” he said.

Demystifying police work and building trust with members of the community are two of the academy’s objectives, according to Vince Bergado, the DPS program coordinator who organizes the class. Most of us, unfortunately, learn about police work through the skewed lens of television and movies, so there is much to demystify. Real police work is more about “person-to-person” contact than the shoot-outs that pass for entertainment, Bergado said.

After 10 weeks of interacting with and learning from members of the department, participants often leave the academy impressed, including Ross Shachter, associate professor of management science and engineering. Shachter had long wanted to enroll in the academy and finally made the time this year.

Vince Bergado

Vince Bergado (Image credit: Kate Chesley)

“I didn’t appreciate the full scale and scope of the operations within public safety, even though I have witnessed many of those services over my years on campus,” said Shachter, a former long-time resident fellow in Serra House. “I have been impressed by the stress on training, planning, teamwork, communication and preparation that allows the individuals in the department, ranging from deputy sheriffs to parking enforcers to special-events staff, to de-escalate tense situations and confrontations to resolve most matters without the use of force.”

Mutual benefit

Shachter’s reaction comes as no surprise to Bergado, who said most participants are also unaware of the many services DPS provides to the Stanford community.

“Our deputies are trained above and beyond California standards,” he said. “We provide the services that municipal agencies provide, as well as additional services like dignitary protection and the event security coordination for some 350 large and small events across campus each year.”

The academy also benefits members of the department, according to Chief Laura Wilson, who instituted the academy in her first years as chief. These types of programs are often called “citizen” academies, but Wilson opted for “community” in a nod to the university’s culture.

Wilson says that officers get as much of an opportunity to learn as do academy participants. They get to hear from the people they serve about what matters most to them when dealing with the police.

“Learning takes place both for the students in the class and the DPS employees who teach,” said Wilson. “I have run into people who took the class five years ago, and when they recognize my affiliation with the department, they will spontaneously start talking about how much they learned and how amazing the class was. That type of reaction makes me think that the investment is worth it.”

The next academy will be offered during Winter Quarter 2018 and applications for enrollment will be available in October.