More than a dozen members of the local clergy marked their graduation this week from Statesboro’s inaugural class of the Concerned Clergy Citizens Police Academy.
Their graduation was celebrated with a dinner, round-table discussion and certificate presentation. The five-week, 20-hour course is a condensed version of the Citizens Police Academy, held annually for interested community members since 2012, and was geared specifically for religious leaders in the community.
The clergy-specific class was the brainchild of Interim Police Chief Rob Bryan who saw a need for this type of program.
“The original concept was designed to help bridge the gap for communication between the community and police officers,” Bryan said. “Communication is what’s not happening. I couldn’t imagine a better way than to reach out to clergy. They stand in front of a congregation, numerous people, each week, and can reach more people than we ever could in our long-term classes.”
The two longer-term Citizens Police Academy classes Bryan referred to include the fall class of 20 to 25 community members and the summer Youth Police Academy classes.
The clergy group met for two hours over five separate Tuesday evenings for informative lectures and classes, behind-the-scenes information dissemination, honest dialog and actual police scenario reenactments in which the participants took part by way of a police simulator.
The simulator scenarios seemed to be a favorite of many of the participants.
Pastor Wayne Williams with New Beginnings Christian Outreach Ministries, vividly described his scenario.
“The simulation was an individual holding up some students in a school with a knife,” Williams said. Taking on the role of a police officer on duty, Williams and a partner, both armed with police-issued, simulated weapons, entered the school building.
Williams said the simulator is a valuable tool and has the capability to change in response to the reaction of the officers.
“There’s no doubt, it feels real.”
Pastor Williams said before he “went in,” he had a plan.
“What I thought I was going to do, go in with a more diplomatic approach: ‘Son, put down the weapon. I know your family. I know you.’ But when it kicked off, adrenaline took ahold. He didn’t back down. When he came toward me with the knife, my partner shot him.”
Obviously, with a simulated gunshot, but Williams said it still felt real.
“We now have much more respect for the department after going through this class. We thank God for it.”
Others in the class echoed Williams’ thoughts and discussed how they talked among classmates after each event about reactions and responses, sometimes questioning decisions made, but agreed that their perceptions changed after the simulation.
Chief Bryan responded, “We all saw how quick some decisions have to be made. How quickly it can go from an innocent looking encounter to a deadly one.”
Bryan said all of the simulations were based on real encounters of officers from across the nation.
“I saw some hands trembling,” Bryan said. “Well, that’s a controlled environment. We were in a class. We knew we were going home that night.”
Minister Derrick Solomon, Body of Christ Assembly, praised the course and said it was a good experience, with open discussion from the very beginning.
“We spoke about diversity, and I appreciate the [police department’s] effort to have more diversity on the force. Working with our youth, they want to see our guys in uniform.
“Some of the kids I work with are afraid of the police and they don’t even know why. After this class, hopefully, I can do what I can to bridge that gap.”
Bryan addressed the elephant in the room and said, “As in all professions, there are some who should not be in that profession, and law enforcement is no different. But we don’t want an officer like that in our program. When an officer does something like that, it tarnishes all the badges.”
Retired Police Chief John Raymond “J.R.” Holloway, the first black man to lead the Statesboro Police Department as commander, stood and addressed the clergy and urged them to share with their congregants, young people especially.
“Don’t hold court on the street,” he said. “If an officer is doing something wrong, come to the department and let them know about it and we’ll take care of it. We don’t want rogue officers.
“But when an officer is on the street, he has the authority to protect himself. Clergy, teach the young folks, don’t have a confrontation on the street. If you got a problem, let us know. The street is not the place for a confrontation.”
Two police officers who were able to attend the event spoke highly of the citizens class. Lt. Anthony B. Gore, Watch Commander, added, “We can do things without a problem, without having an issue. Easier being there for a positive thing than a negative thing.”
“It kind of tears down the walls,” said K9 handler Kyle Briley. “More transparency. Allows dialog between the officers and community. We learn from them; they learn from us.”
Though both sides of the badge admitted there’s more work to do, the consensus of the group was one of overwhelming success.
Mayor Jan Moore said: “I think the Citizens Police Academy for members of the clergy yielded a level of understanding that neither the participants nor our police department anticipated.
“I feel one of the best ways for our community to move forward is to build trust and understanding through structured exercises like this in which both parties are putting in the time and effort to learn about one another and to collaborate on the most promising ways to go forward.”
Mayor Moore shared that she plans to roll out another initiative in the next several weeks that will involve the community’s youth and is very excited about doing so.
The mayor ended the event with a challenge to the clergy in attendance to find others within their sphere of influence that would benefit from the Citizens Police Academy and urge those persons to sign up.