Ever since a police officer spoke to his University High School class in Irvine, Danny Rosario has been fascinated with law enforcement.
Until recently, however, Rosario and others had little chance to study the inner workings of police departments except by reading occasional newspaper stories or watching TV dramas such as "NYPD Blue."
But a growing number of police departments in Orange County and elsewhere are attempting to tap the deep interest many people have in police work by creating training programs known as citizen academies.
Unlike self-defense classes and Neighborhood Watch programs typically sponsored by police, the academies are designed to show average residents about all aspects of police work, from the officers on the beat to dispatchers to homicide detectives and weapons trainers.
Rosario, now a student at Irvine Valley College, was one of the first to sign up for the Irvine Police Department's academy. It's one of about 20 such academies operating in Orange County.
On the first day of Irvine's academy stint last month, Rosario and the 25 other participants kicked off the 13-week program by visiting jail cells, becoming familiar with the workings of a patrol car and talking with police officers.
During succeeding weeks, officers, detectives, judges, prosecutors and others discuss their specialties--from the SWAT team and law enforcement ethics to animal control and investigations. Students gather for the talks in the same room where officers do their morning exercises and get a briefing before heading out for the day's work.
Organizers said their goal is for officers and residents to act like neighbors. The academy should be a place where the image of a police officer isn't just that of a towering figure writing a traffic ticket or investigating a crime, they believe.
"When a police car is behind you, everybody gets nervous. I get nervous when a police car is behind me when I'm in another city,' said Capt. John Rees of the La Habra Police Department. "Through this program, you reduce that tension."
Developed about 15 years ago in England, the citizens academy idea made its debut in the U.S. about 10 years ago.
In one year, most academies put on two 10- to 13-week programs for about two dozen students. Most classes include a patrol car ride-along and a graduation ceremony. Some academies also offer firearms training.
"They're wondering what police officers do out there with some of the stuff they see on TV," Irvine Police Lt. Pat Rodgers said. "There are people who would have liked to be a police officer, but they went another direction. We try to make it pretty fun and exciting for everyone."
Rodgers said participants in a class could include businesspeople, journalists, retirees--or anyone, for that matter.
"A desired goal of the Police Department is that every citizen in the community . . . know at least one police officer for information or for help," said La Habra's Rees. "And this has proven to be one avenue to gain rapport with the community.
"It works both ways. A police department with knowledge and support of their community can be much more effective, and the community can be a lot more satisfied."
Some academy participants take the next step and become police volunteers. After Ronald Zanon graduated six years ago from Buena Park's citizens academy, he joined CAP (Citizens Assisting Police), a group of volunteers who help in tasks from clerical work to transportation and traffic.
Zanon takes care of the property room, where confiscated property is returned or put up for auction. A retired mechanic who has lived in Buena Park for 22 years, Zanon said he used to take the police services for granted. Volunteering, he said, is his way of saying "Thank you."
Buena Park Police Sgt. Chris Nunez said not all academy participants are always supporters of police actions. Some are skeptics--even critics--who come for a better view of what officers do.
"All the people who come through aren't blatant, strong supporters," Nunez said. "There are critics who wanted to learn more, and I think that's healthy. They get perspective from the horse's mouth.
"We're very conscious of our commitment to service, even if that means hearing we didn't do a very good job. From that feedback, we make adjustments."