The Citizens’ Police Academy has returned to the Costa Mesa Police Department as the department’s staffing inches closer to the city’s goal.
On a recent Wednesday night, 17 Costa Mesa residents stretched on purple latex gloves to participate in a crime scene investigation session, one of the eight parts of the fall program.
The academy, dormant since 2015 when the last crime prevention specialist retired, returned Sept. 12 and runs through Nov. 7. It is designed for everyday residents to learn about police operations from instructors drawn from all levels of the department. It covers CSI and forensics, patrol, bike detail, responding to a simulated traffic collision and “shoot-don’t-shoot” simulations.
“There is much to learn about a police department,” said spokeswoman Roxi Fyad.
The department hopes to run the course each fall and spring, with an additional summer session for children, police said.
The academy is back thanks to increased police staffing, said Fyad, who oversees crime prevention programming, including the academy.
As of this month, the department has 128 sworn officers, with six recruits working through the police academy and pre-academy. That puts the agency on track to have 134 sworn officers, just two short of the 136 the city has budgeted for.
The department’s overall staff consists of 220 members.
The current officer number is a marginal increase from January, when Chief Rob Sharpnack said he anticipated being fully staffed by the end of summer.
But at the beginning of 2017, the department had 114 sworn officers, 22 short of its target. In recent years, the department says, more staff and other resources have been assigned to recruiting and expediting the testing process for new recruits. City officials have said since 2015 that the department was primed to fill its ranks and fire on all cylinders.
The number of sworn officers began to shrink in 2011 after City Council members voted to cut Police Department staffing through attrition. Officials also delayed hiring to fill anticipated vacancies as some council members pushed to reduce pension benefits for new recruits.
At the end of 2012, the department brought in its first new sworn personnel since 2008. Still, in June 2014, only 86 sworn officers were available to work because of vacancies, injuries and other factors.
During the academy CSI session, investigator Krystal Aleman walked participants through the steps of lifting fingerprints off glass jars, soda cans and shower tiles.
After dipping a small brush of fiberglass fibers in a fine black dust, she delicately swirled the brush on a white bathroom tile as the dust stuck to the ridges, revealing a perfectly defined fingerprint.
But she offered a caveat that real-life suspects often leave less-pristine specimens.
“If they are super sweaty, it will be smudged,” Aleman said.
Jason Ambriz, 24, of Costa Mesa was one of the younger participants in the group, though he’s a veteran of the citizens police academy in Santa Ana, where he is a student at Santa Ana College studying criminal justice in hopes of becoming a CSI officer. With 2½ years done, he has one more semester to go on his way to joining the Orange County sheriff’s academy.
At the Costa Mesa academy, Ambriz moved through the fingerprint lifting with ease, then watched his classmates.
“He’s going to be good,” fellow participant Fran Gruenthal said.
Completing the academy is a prerequisite to volunteering with the Police Department, so some regular volunteers are completing it retroactively now that it’s off hiatus.
Gruenthal, of Costa Mesa, is one of those volunteers. Fingerprinting isn’t new to her — she worked the live scan fingerprinting desk before being transferred to records.
Now her job is to “file and file and file,” Gruenthal said.
To be eligible for the Costa Mesa Citizens’ Police Academy, one must be 21 or older, live or work in Costa Mesa and have no outstanding warrants or pending criminal cases, no felony convictions and no misdemeanor arrests in the past three years.
After completing an online application, eligible candidates will undergo fingerprinting and a background check.
The current academy is full, and an announcement hasn’t been made about a spring course.