behind the badge:

From the eyes of officers

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The Eskimo word for police officer means "man without legs," referring to an era when cops remained in their car throughout their entire shift.

But times have changed since then as police departments across the nation have made the transition from sitting officers who observe actions and respond to ones who are active components of the community and work to prevent crime and solve the root of the problem instead of just responding to the situation.

This was the lesson of the second week of Citizen's Police Academy, a program designed to educate the public on department functions and philosophies in an attempt to give people a better understanding of what the department does and why.

The program is fully interactive. Participants not only learn about the tools officers use to do their job, they get to use them.

Toys. That's how most students saw the equipment, but much of it is a lifeline for the officers.

From shoulder-mounted radios to windshield-mounted spotlights, each item has the goal of preventing crime safely.

"Our main goal is to get officers home safe," Capt. Jerry DeLong said.

That's the reason officers spotlight a car when they pull it over, why they crowd so close to the vehicle when approaching it and why they use pepper spray instead of physical contact.

But safety wasn't first on the mind of Academy students. They laughed as they stood outside City Hall and watched a string of taillights turn red when drivers saw not only the parked police car, but a group of smiling adults with a radar gun pointed at their license plate.

Drivers get an A. All but one, who was seen exceeding the speed limit by 14 miles per hour. The driver escaped a ticket, but not because students pleaded for leniency.

"Catch him, catch him," was the phrase that drifted into the night air as the sport-utility vehicle sped away.

Officers, without their cars and loaded down with the nearly 30 pounds of equipment they are required to carry, didn't pursue the driver.

One thing students learned was that it may be easier to outrun an officer than outdrive one. The Crown Victoria cars officers driver are designed specially for police departments and can comfortably hit speeds of 120 mph. Officers, on the other hand, are required to carry a tool belt that holds radios, a remote control for the video camera mounted in their vehicles, their weapon, pepper spray, a retractable baton, hand cuffs and a myriad of other items that need to be close at hand. In addition, they are "strongly encouraged" to wear a bulletproof vest at all times.

Though it's not mandatory, all officers on the Craig police force wear vests.

The uniform makes for heavy steps and hot days and isn't real conducive to running.

But, as Detective Sgt. Henry Stoffel pointed out, he hasn't seen a person yet who can out run a police radio. As you're gloating about escaping from one officer, you run smack-dab into another one who's waiting around the corner.

The police department does have some toys. In a lesson about DUI stops, students wore goggles made to give the wearer the feeling of intoxication.

And they work.

The goggles don't just skew your vision, they give you that light-headed, off-balance, can't-think-quick feeling known as "having a few too many."

Walking a yellow line seems easy enough, and those wearing the goggles think they're doing a pretty fair job. Those without the goggles see that your feet are about two inches away from the yellow line and notice an officer standing close by for a quick catch when you lose your balance. Even more telling is how you grasp at air trying to catch a soft ball thrown at you. Some continue flailing their arms long after the ball has hit the ground.

The lesson for the night, amidst all the fun, was on the duties of patrol officers.

The Craig Police Department has 10 patrol officers, four of which are women.

According to Capt. Jerry DeLong, the main responsibility of patrol officers is to handle calls, which could range from parking violations to homicide.

"Officers never really know what they're going to come up with that day," Sgt. Bill Leonard said.

One of the main goals of the police department is the integration of community oriented policing. That concept changes officers' duties from just responding to a call and the immediate situation, to getting to the root of the problem in an attempt to prevent crime.

"That's what we're all about," DeLong said. "We're trying to build partnerships. That way, people may communicate with us better."

But what officers wanted to get across Wednesday night is that they are people who live in the same community, have children in the same schools and shop in the same stores as civilians.

"Police officers are still members of the community," officer Brian Soper said. "We try not to set ourselves apart."

"We're a little bit more than just a uniform, we're individuals," Leonard added.

The sparkle in their eyes and the enthusiasm in their voices betrays the officers as uninvolved teachers. They love their job and it shows. Each has a story about the close call, the life saved and a crime solved.

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