A university police officer instructing students during the Citizen’s Police Academy. Students can learn more about law enforcement through the 12-week academy that the University Police Department offers. JONNATHAN PULLA/ THE STATESMAN

Stony Brook University students in the Citizen’s Police Academy course entered the fourth course of the semester, Use of Force, with large smiles on their faces and greeted the officers with delight in Roth Cafe’s room 122.

The Citizen’s Police Academy is a 12-week, one-credit course in which the University Police Department’s (UPD) Community Relations Team introduces students to basic law enforcement concepts such as police ethics, defense tactics, vehicle and traffic stops, physical force, FATS (Firearms Training Simulator) and active shooter incidents. The course began in Summer 2016 as a community outreach program. Classes take place on Tuesday evenings from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Assistant Chief of Police, Eric Olsen, said in his 20 years as an officer for the New York Police Department, he never saw a program like the Citizen’s Police Academy at SBU. After seeing the public’s reaction to the Alton Sterling case — in which an unarmed black man was shot dead by two Baton Rouge police officers sparked widespread outrage after a bystander video of the situation went viral — Olsen said he knew he needed to help change the way citizens perceive law enforcement.

“I personally was frustrated with some of the media coverage on the [Alton Sterling police shooting,]” Olsen said. “They don’t really put the interactions into context and they just show you the video. This is what made me say ‘we have to do something,’ at least something that will educate people so they have their own opinion.”

Olsen began the Oct. 2 course with a PowerPoint depicting the various ways officers use force when they deal with civilians based on what they learn in their police academies. The slides showed why physical force is important, who it can be used against and when it is correct to use in an escalating situation.

“Citizens can use physical force to defend themselves or any other person when in imminent danger, assist a police officer and defend their home or business,” Olsen explained.

Olsen ended the presentation with a video of a police-civilian situation that displayed the force continuum, guidelines that help law enforcement officers and civilians know how much force can be used in any given situation.

An officer’s presence in any given situation is considered a level one interaction because they’re not using any force. It is deemed the best way to resolve a situation. In level two of the force continuum, the officer will initiate contact with verbal commands. Then in level three, the officer may use soft techniques such as pepper sprays or handcuffs to restrain an individual. Level four requires hard techniques such as using a baton to strike low-impact areas. Level five is the last resort, when officers use firearms or strike the suspect in harmful areas if they believe the individual is a serious threat.   

Students squealed with joy when they learned they’d have the opportunity to use handcuffs in a partner exercise. In two-person teams, each partner took a turn telling their “suspect” to turn around and put their hands behind their back before handcuffing them. Some shimmied the cuffs around trying to figure out how they worked, raising their eyebrows and asking their partners how they were supposed to use the handcuffs.  

The instructors were then able to use a special key to unlock the “suspect’s” handcuffs.

“Whenever you cuff somebody, palms are out,” Officer Peter Thomson said, as he demonstrated the technique on Officer Jared King. “You yell ‘turn around, turn around.’ Now he doesn’t see me and he doesn’t know what I’m going to do,” Thomson said.

The second exercise included batons, which serve as tools for stopping suspects without causing a large amount of physical harm. The main idea of this exercise was for the students to maintain eye contact with Officer Thomson as he moved a paper-like baton slowly from left to right, making direct contact with their batons.

Throughout the course, officers emphasized the power of verbal commands. On the force continuum scale, level two can prevent altercations from escalating into level five situations.  

“I joined this course because I plan on going into the field similar to this after I leave college,” junior sociology and psychology double major Ethan Taveras said. “I think all citizens should get involved in something like this because you really don’t know the actions that are going through a cop’s mind and it’s something good to know to avoid any type of extra conflict.”

The final drill involved OC Spray (pepper spray), which only contained water and wasn’t a typical oil-based spray. As a level three type of force, its results can be more harmful than physical force. The officers in the room described their experiences getting sprayed on their faces and emphasized how important it is to get medical assistance after having direct contact with pepper spray.

“My favorite part has been learning the mentality behind what they do because it’s quick sometimes that their actions might come off as wrong but it’s not necessarily wrong,” junior health science major Shanthi Chidambaram said. “I loved the use of pepper spray because it’s less physical if that makes any sense. You can be a little farther and have it still work.”

The Citizen’s Police Academy course is largely made up of one thing: great sportsmanship. Classmates applauded each other after they took turns attempting every drill in the three-hour course. There was laughter, students encouraging one another and instructors ready to lend a hand.

UPD hosts other outreach programs on campus including Coffee with a Cop, Rape Aggression Defense (R.A.D.) and Active Shooter Preparedness workshops. The upcoming Active Shooter Preparedness workshop with UPD and Risk Management will be on Nov. 14 at 1 p.m. in Roth Cafe room 122.
“We’re not here to teach everybody that the police are 100 percent correct all of the time; that’s not our goal,” Olsen said. “Our goal is to give you the information and to have fun. Maybe when you see a [confrontational] video you’ll be like ‘hey you know what, that officer could’ve used more or less force there, I learned that in class.’”

Filmed and edited by Evelin Mercedes