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Middletown Life

The Middletown citizen’s brigade

Apr 12, 2023 01:00PM ● By Tricia Hoadley
By Richard L. Gaw
Staff Writer

It is just past nine a.m. on a rainy February morning in Middletown, and a 30-member convergence of the like-minded has already occupied about one quarter of the Bob Evans restaurant on Casa Drive.

They came here at the invitation of Master Sergeant Scott Saunders and Corporal Steve West of the Middletown Police Department as part of the department’s occasional “Coffee With a Cop” gatherings it hosts throughout the year, and at table after table, the conversations form like small waves tilting and splashing and overflowing.

Over bottomless cups of coffee, they extol the virtues of a sound police department but soundly refute the crimes that continue to be committed in the name of law enforcement.

They discuss the vast differences between a white person stopped by an officer and a Black person stopped by an officer.

They unpack the interpretation of an agency that has been accused of stoking the fires of racial discontent.

They share their empathy for a police officer who has to respond to a call in the middle of the night, not knowing what lay ahead.

Slowly, sentence by sentence, thought by thought and with more thought to listening than speaking, their voices become the needle and thread that stitches back together the cloth of a nation that has been divided by a mistrust in its law enforcement.

Social gatherings like this form the essential national conversation that is slowly beginning to re-connect citizens and police units, and in Middletown, these voices are a direct and purposeful pipeline to the mission of the Middletown Police Department’s Citizens Police Academy (CPA).

First implemented in 2019, the CPA is a nine-week program designed to educate and expose members of the community to the various functions and duties of first responders. Its goal is simple: To create community partners by providing participants with the ability to look at law enforcement from an expanded point of view.

Scheduled over a nine-week period every fall and now in its fourth year, the Academy – which is free to anyone 18 years of age or older – has introduced nearly 150 area residents to classroom and hands-on instruction presented by law enforcement officers and those in related fields.

In past years, the department has partnered with the Delaware State Police, the Delaware Natural Resources Police, the Delaware Bureau of Alcohol and Tobacco Enforcement, the New Castle County Police Department, the New Castle County Paramedics, New Castle County Department of Emergency Communications and several other supporting agencies.

Some of the topics covered during the CPA’s Fall 2022 session included:

  • Department corporals DaKevis Howard and Michael Hilliard presented, “Trauma to Wellness,” that introduced CPA students to what officers observe while on duty and the psychological effects some of the events they witness can have on them.

  • Members of the Delaware State Police Aviation Unit landed a helicopter in the open field next to the Middletown Police station, and provided CPA students with an overview of their mission and their use of technology.

  • Members of the Delaware Alcohol & Tobacco Enforcement Agency (DATE) provided CPA students with an overview of their department, and introduced the DATE driving simulator that is capable of replicating various driving scenarios including driving under the influence.

  • The Consumer Protection Unit for the Delaware Department of Justice conducted a presentation about consumer protection awareness that introduced CPA students to consumer frauds, deceptive trade practices, online privacy, data breaches, telemarketing, home improvement fraud and identity theft.

  • The Delaware Emergency Management Agency (DEMA) gave an overview on the capabilities and protocols of the Emergency Communications Center of the Delaware Emergency Management Agency.

  • Members of the MPD staff introduced students to range and firearms safety, an exposed them to hands-on, scenario-based simulations of activities that officers encounter on the job.

  • Members of the Middletown Police Criminal Investigations Unit engaged students in how various criminal investigations are conducted from start to finish.

  • In his presentation, “Vaping to Marijuana to Opiate Abuse: A Recipe for Disaster,” William J. Lynch, Jr. of the Jefferson Health System provided students with an overview of the dangers associated with illicit drug use, as well as provided statistical and verifiable data that connects marijuana use with the onset of addiction to opiates.

To be the bridge relationship’

Salahudin Bin-Yusif, the chairman of the Town of Middletown Police Advisory Board of Director, said that the consistent thread in each of the Academy’s workshops is found in teaching how the elements of the community fit within the design of policing.

“As a citizenry, we often do not understand how we fit into the framework of the department, and that’s the problem,” Bin-Yusif said. “By joining the Academy, you not only establish a more refined sense of what officers do, you see how that mission is woven around each citizen.

“Everyone benefits here – the teacher and the students -- not only from the standpoint of the education that citizens receive, but from the point of view of each officer that allows them to see their community outside the realm of a traditional law enforcement operation.”

“The job of the Academy is to be the bridge relationship between the police department and the citizens, to link our communities with the department,” said Jason Hunt, a member of the Town of Middletown Police Advisory Board. “A stronger community forms when these two entities are not separate but working together. Many of these conversations have been stifled because of COVID-19, but we’re have a social media page, an Instagram and anything that is good for the community, we put out as a bridge builder.

“Crime is everywhere, and we want to make sure that our citizens are working with us to make Middletown a better community.”

When he first began teaching at the Academy, Saunders quickly discovered first-hand the power of the two-way education that defined each class -- the ebb-and-flow of both conversation and observation between officers and Academy members.

“Our students teach me where we are missing things as officers,” Saunders said. “We have all this training, procedures and policies, but they are not absolute. Our citizens are our customers, so just like in any other business, if there is something we can do better, it will come from them, and often in the form of a question, to push us to do better.”

We want to win through whispers’

If there is an unseen but powerful presence to the work being done at the Middletown Police Department’s Citizen’s Police Academy, it is found in the lingering shadows of police incidents that continue to occur around the United States, the aftermath of which reverberate through the hallowed halls of homes, schools and places of faith.

Hard against the seemingly endless, reel-to-reel frequency of what is seen on television and spun through the cycle of opinion-based media, lay the small pockets of re-connection that attempt to repair the broken bonds between police departments and the communities they serve.

The Academy forms just one of those small pockets, West said.

“Everyone who has attended the Academy comes with a different life experience, a different interpretation of how they view policing,” he said. “It has been great to get all of those people in all of their diversity and ages and begin to have discussions.

“We challenge those whose interpretations of policing are defined by the media or personal interactions with officers to come out and educate themselves. To those who wish to attend, we say, ‘Challenge us. Tell us how we can be a better police department.’ Policing has always been predominantly slow to change, but our world is changing so rapidly that it is up to us to catch up with it.”

Saunders, who has 30 years of policing experience and has been with the Middletown Police Department since its inception in 2007, called for those in positions of authority and elected officials to help underwrite the future of such programs like the Academy. The end results are self-evident, he said.

“I believe that when there is a true relationship formed between the police and a community it is entrusted to serve, that it can help deter crime in that community,” he said. “When that happens, trust is made, and citizens feel confident enough to keep us informed, because they have a greater understanding of who we are and what we do.

“They begin to understand the split-second decisions that we have to make, and how it is often a thin line between doing things properly and making a mistake

Pastor Ron Smith of the Mission Church in Townsend and a recent graduate of the Academy, summarized the mission of the Academy by likening it to a relationship that must be protected.

“This is our community – this is my community – and no one is more well-versed in that than the police department,” he said. “We have forgotten that the public and the police have always been in partnership with each other, and too many now believe that the police are simply hired and delegated for crime prevention. This bridge has been forgotten, but remains so vital, in that we are naturally intended to work together.

“We are an extension of them, and they are an extension of us, and we are both here to share our messages, but we don’t want this message to be done through shouting. We want to win through whispers.”

The fifth annual Middletown Police Department’s Citizens Police Academy will be taking place this September. For additional information and to register, contact Master Sergeant Scott Saunders at (302) 376-9950 or email: [email protected]. Attendance in the Academy is free to anyone 18 years of age or older, who lives in Middletown, and participation is also open to anyone who lives in Delaware.

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].

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