A ride-along with purpose


Graduates of the Citizen Police Academy get an inside look at law enforcement procedures and programs in Ottawa County. Courtesy Ottawa County

Undercover investigations. Dive team and marine patrol. How to use firearms. Fatal accident investigations. Operating dispatch. Recovering narcotics. CSI work.

The Ottawa County Sheriff’s Department does it all, and it wants the public to know how and why. That’s why in 2009, the department launched its Citizen Police Academy, a 12-week class open to the community to educate participants on all the complexities of working on the police force.

The academy, which already is reviewing applications for 2017, is free of charge and accepts 25 members per class. Topics include road patrol, a tour of the correctional facility, K9 patrol duties and demonstration, use of force demonstration and explanation, special operations, a look at the criminal justice system, community policing and more.

Capt. Derek Christensen of the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Department has coordinated the program for the past two years. He said the main focus is community engagement.

“It provides us an opportunity to show citizens how we work and all of the facets in the criminal justice system: our courts, our communication with central dispatch and so on,” he said.

Christensen said another outcome of the program is dispelling misconceptions.

“Many individuals have a perceived idea of what law enforcement is, and they leave with a much better idea of what it really is,” he said. “When they’re done … they’ve become an advocate of what law enforcement does and what our agency does in the community.”

Beyond fostering more positive perceptions of police, Christensen also said the program can become a recruitment tool for the participants who really connected with the material.

“We had two young people go through (the program) last year, and I know we’ve interviewed both of them for our cadet program,” he said. “We’ve also had more experienced adults that we’ve interviewed and hired for our senior volunteer program.”

The senior volunteer program enlists the help of retirees to take care of servicing the department’s fleet, attending community events on behalf of the department — even patrolling public parking areas to identify and ticket violators, especially people illegally parked in handicap spaces, Christensen said.

William Huizenga, of Hudsonville, said he and his wife, Ann, signed up for the 2016 Citizen Police Academy after hearing about it from friends who had enrolled the previous year. He said he walked away with a new respect for the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Department.

“It was wonderful,” he said. “I was really impressed with their professionalism and caring, especially when we did a ride-along, and there was an arrest. They were very firm and very caring with a homeless person on a drug arrest, so that impressed me.”

Huizenga said he especially liked seeing the K9 police and their dogs; learning about the court system and how the judge, jury and prosecutors function; learning to shoot guns at a firearms range; and testing out the department’s dive team equipment in the Spring Lake Aquatic Center. Huizenga said not long after testing the dive equipment, he and his wife heard about how it was used to recover the body of a neighbor.

“When we hear about things (in the news) now, we know a little bit more about what goes on behind the scenes,” he said.

Christopher Miller, of Grand Haven, another participant in the 2016 academy, said he went into the classes looking forward to understanding more about policing than what the media typically presents.

“Going through a class like that makes it more personal, and you see that (the police) are people just like you. They take risks every day, but they are human just like you.”

Miller said he plans to spread the word about the program and plans to share his experience with friends and neighbors.

“I can hopefully help inform them a little, since I have information they might not always have,” he said. “Everyone has an opinion, but it’s not always well informed.”

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