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(This is the last in a series about the Bryant Citizen’s Academy, in which reporter Matt Burks took part for eight weeks. )
The resurrection of the Bryant Citizen’s Academy is considered a success, officials of the Bryant Police Department said, thanks to the diligence of a sergeant in his first year in the program.
When new Police Chief Tony Coffman decided to revive the program vacated since 2005, he assigned Sgt. Jenceson Payte to teach a class of 21 people about the life of a police officer. The class began on Sept. 16 and took place for two hours every Tuesday night and one Saturday for eight weeks. The goal is to eventually hold the class twice a year each year, officials said.
Though Payte has been with the Bryant Police Department since 2001, he has never directed a program working with civilians. Despite that, he said, Coffman thought he was the man for the job.
“He said he wanted to bring the program back and asked me specifically to take charge,” Payte said. “I think he saw that I have a good way of communicating with the public. He felt comfortable that I could interact with them and teach them at the same time.”
The citizen’s academy is designed to give participants a working knowledge of their police department’s operation. It also aims to teach people why officers act or react to certain situations and to create a mutual trust and cooperation between them the department, Payte explained.
“The ultimate goal is to provide citizens with an inside look at law enforcement and in doing so, they get a better understanding of what we do,” he said. “The police officers also get to interact with the citizens on a different level, other than just for a police matter. The more good people we get involved in the program, the more positive interaction they can have with the officers and the more apt they are to approach an officer.”
Although Payte takes the class seriously, he said one goal was to let the participants have fun through simulated activities.
He explained that the participants learn things inside the classroom and later test what they learned in the field.
“It is one thing to hear things in the classroom and another to experience it,” he said. “It gives a better viewpoint of the other side, and it is about understanding how officers act.”
Casey Cobb, 35, of Benton said it was because of that thinking that he gained a new level of respect for law enforcement officers.
“I realize now why officers approach situations in certain ways,” he said. “Even with a simple traffic stop, because they never know if it will be there last walk up to a vehicle or not. It was also a lot of fun to just get out of the classroom, put on equipment and see how an officer trains.”
Payte first created a mock traffic stop in which participants tried to stop a suicidal driver, and they faced another scenario of two suspects with guns. In the classroom, participants learned how to approach the vehicle, use simple techniques to diffuse the situation and even how to leave their fingerprint on the suspects vehicle.
Numerous participants said the field exercises were “fun, exciting and an adrenaline rush,” but many also said that a particular night in the classroom offered an eye-opening reality to their lack of safety and security. On the fifth week, Stephen Svetz with the State of Arkansas Attorney General Office talked to the class about identity theft. He taught the class how thieves can easily steal a person’s identity through the use of a computer, cell phone or simply stealing a wallet or purse.
“The most informative class was identity theft night,” said Lee Melton, 44, of Benton. “It scared me because I did not realize there was that much identity theft going on.”
“I went home and said to my husband ‘We’ve got to change this, this and this,’” said Alisha Vaughn, 23, of Haskell. “It was very informative.”
“I thought [Svetz] really did a good job of opening our eyes,” agreed Lisa Smith, 45, of Benton. “We found that everyone in today’s society can be a victim, and he helped us learn how to better prevent that from happening. It really scared me when he also showed how easy it is for someone to backtrack your information on the computer and get the address to your home.”
Class participants also said that week six, SWAT night, was among their favorite parts of the citizen’s academy. Julia Graham, 22, of Bryant said it was an “intense adrenaline rush” and gave her a better appreciation of SWAT members’ training.
During the SWAT training night, participants were taken to the Direct Action Resource Center in Pulaski County, where they met several Bryant Police Department SWAT team members, including team commander Lt. J.W. Plouch and team leader Sgt. Nick Dean. The participants first put on safety glasses and ear plugs and then were taken to a scaffolding to look down below on the SWAT team.
“SWAT night was really more of a fun night for the participants,” Payte said. “They got to see how specialized training is utilized and how police handle a variety of high risk situations.”
The participants muttered numerous “Oohs” and “Ahhs” as they watched flash bangs illuminate the night and heard the thunderous noise the diversionary devices create. The participants then put on 30-pound vests and headgear and were given weapons with simulated ammunition to track down an armed suspect inside a building.
“I love the building clearance,” said Jessica Stocks, 19, of Bryant. “It was very educational, and I got a feel for what SWAT does. I always wanted to work for SWAT and now I am 100 percent sure that is the field I want to go into.”
“I didn’t know there was that advanced of training for individual [SWAT members] in Arkansas,” said Jewell Crowson, 66, of Benton. “That was a really fun and good experience for everyone.”
Payte said the participants also learned just how difficult it can be to fire accurately with all the equipment a SWAT member wears.
“I think they understood the need for all the extensive training,” he said. “They experienced just how intense that training can be too.”
The seventh week, Payte introduced his newest partner to group: Drika, a 3-year-old Belgian Malinois dual-purpose dog. He explained that Drika is trained for building searches, tracking people or suspects and for explosives detection.
“We have trained her approximately 240 hours of basic patrol,” Payte said. “She is trained in 11 explosive odors that are pertinent to this particular region. Her patrol functions include building searches to catching suspects.”
Drika is the second K-9 partner for Payte. He said his first K-9, Valek, who served numerous years on the force, was retired from the department in June. Payte also introduced another K-9 dog into the Bryant Police Department, Shelby, who is an eight-year-old black Labrador Retriever. Shelby is a narcotics detection dog, and her partner is Officer Kevin Smith.
Both Drika and Shelby displayed their skills outside the Bryant Police Department through a variety of scenarios. Smith showed the group how Shelby was able to detect hidden drugs among numerous items, and Drika showed how she can track an item as small as a set of keys in a field.
It was the third and final scenario that the participants reacted to strongly. Sgt. Jimmy Long dressed in a protective suit and, during a traffic stop scene, unexpectedly wielded a knife. Drika suddenly jumped over the hood of the vehicle and took down Long and his knife so that the other officers could take him into custody.
“Anyone that runs from a police dog is crazy,” Crowson said. “I didn’t know they could be that aggressive.”
Long also played the role of a bank robbery suspect that refused to exit the vehicle, despite opening the vehicle door. Drika was then given a command, latched on to Long and dragged him out of the vehicle, for officers to take him into custody.
“The participants really loved to see how the dogs work in action,” Payte said. “They were really amazed at the athleticism and versatility of the dogs. They saw how dogs are a tool, aide and back-up for an officer and what techniques they use. When a dog is properly trained and the officer is properly trained with the dog, they can get a suspect and help the officer take them into custody.”
If ever there was a class that Payte was attentive and cautious, it was the firing range day. It was the final week for the citizen’s academy, and it was the class’s second trip to the Direct Action Resource Center in Pulaski County. This is where participants were allowed to shoot numerous guns on three different firing ranges.
“[Payte] was very detailed in weapon explanation and safety training before we even went out to the range,” Vaughn said. “He even explained how a bullet is designed and how it works.”
After explaining numerous times how to “only put the finger on the trigger when you are ready to fire” and how and where to aim a weapon, the students were handed their weapons. Participants shot .40-caliber handguns, .45-caliber handguns, 5.56-millimeter M-4 rifles, .308-caliber sniper rifles and .9-millimeter semi-auto/full auto on the .308-caliber rifle chassis.
“They were taken through three shooting ranges, and almost everyone enjoyed that,” Payte said. “They were explained how to shoot the weapons, shot some targets and took home one of the targets as a memento.”
Many participants said the gained a new appreciation and respect for guns. Some were taken into a world they never experienced before and left with a new attitude about guns.
“I loved the shooting at the firing range,” Barbara Riggan, 48, of Sardis said. “I just like learning how to use guns in a proper way. The more that I think about it, the more that I want to go back and shoot the targets better.”
On the last day, numerous participants expressed their sadness about the last day of the program but strived to tell others about their experience.
“I loved it … it was fantastic,” said Jessica Luallen, 26, of Little Rock. “It added a whole new level of respect of what officers do on a day-to-day basis.”
“ I work for the Bryant Police Department as a dispatcher,” said Darcy Sparks, 49, of Bryant. “I am usually on the other end of sending out a call to an officer, so this helped me have a better understanding of what an officer faces. It lets you understand there end when you are talking to them.”
The participants met one last time at the Bryant Police Department, as they were given certificates and personalized coffee mugs during a graduation ceremony. Many participants said they either plan to take the class again or encourage a family member or friend to participate in the next session.
Payte said he is glad that he had a responsive group to work with during his first experience as an instructor for the citizen’s academy. He said he is eager to start the next round of classes, though he has not yet set the date.
“Overall, the group brought a completely different understanding of what a law enforcement officer does and they can now find it much easier to interact with an officer,” he said. “We a lot of different people in the group with a variety of different backgrounds. I met a lot of really good people and I enjoyed the interaction with them. I throughly enjoyed putting the class on. It was very challenging to put it all together, but I enjoyed watching them get experience. Getting positive feedback from them confirmed that we completed our mission and I will absolutely do this class again if asked, with no hesitation.”
Payte said special thanks goes to food sponsors: Pulaski Bank, Twin City Bank, Bryant Exxon, First Security Bank, Gladco Incorporated, Heartland Bank and BR McGintys Heat and Air.
For more information about the Bryant Citizen’s Academy call Sgt. Jenceson Payte or Chief Tony Coffman at the Bryant Police Department at 847-0211.
To find out information about the Benton Police Department Citizen’s Acad-emy, call call Sgt. Kevin Russell at 776-5948.