Reporter's Notebook: Perception a concern for Huntington Police Department

One in a series.

After watching an Orange County Sheriff's Academy highlight video from 1997, with Kenny Loggins' "Danger Zone" playing in the background and an abundant amount of yelling from drill sergeants, Huntington Beach Police Chief Robert Handy started his department's 31st Citizen Police Academy last week by heading to the front of the class to introduce himself and field questions from the 20 members — of whom I am one.

"It's important to teach the public about police, but it's also important to hear from the residents," he said.

Handy and some students in the 11-week course raised concerns about the Huntington Beach Food, Art and Music Festival, set for Friday through Sunday at the state beach.

After Handy described his concerns — the possible overflow of visitors onto city property, the potential for drunken drivers and the short notice for the event — I realized the city went through something similar last year with Wet Electric, an electronic music festival that also took place on the state beach.

I had thought the miscommunication between the city and the state Parks and Recreation Department had been fixed after last year, but Handy told us the same situation happened again. The city had little notification that the festival was going to happen and little say in the planning process, he said. The chief found out about it through a flier he received in the mail.

Then there was the issue of downtown Huntington Beach, which has had difficulties with its public image because of the rowdy bar crowd, fights and transients.

After Handy explained to the class why several officers are sent to a call — to protect one another — one of my classmates asked him about the militarization of police.

That really struck a nerve with the chief. He said the media has been blowing that accusation out of proportion.

Tools such as heavy armor are effective in the right situation, though the Huntington Beach Police Department does not use it, he said.

Our academy instructors took us to the various departments in the police station. As we walked around, I realized that all the topics Handy talked about revolved around perception.

Handy has been on a mission since he came onboard nine months ago to create a better connection with the general public and polish the department's image.

He has held many community meetings, had his officers grab coffee with residents and now has revived the citizens academy after a five-year absence because of funding cuts. The academy is arguably Handy's most effective outreach tool.

I don't think the department's public image needed much fixing, but Handy has gone above and beyond to tell people that Huntington Beach is a safe place to live and visit. He's also trying to show that his officers are not to be feared.

Look for more of staff writer Anthony Clark Carpio's notebooks from the Citizen Police Academy in upcoming editions of the Huntington Beach Independent.

Copyright © 2018, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World