By Tricia Goecks


Walking into the meeting room at the Public Safety Building for the graduation night of the Citizen Police Academy on March 4, the camaraderie between the academy’s participants and members of the Belvidere Police Department is obvious. The jokes and verbal jabs flow freely.

The Citizen Police Academy is an eight week long program. “We explain the basic structure of the department, how police officers are hired, expose them to information about gangs and drugs,” Deputy Chief of Police Brad Lasswell said. “We teach programs we have in the police department like the gang intervention tactical response team. We provide a K-9 demonstration and we talk with them about our traffic enforcement program such as our past year statistics including our top ten traffic accident intersections.”

“The participants use the PRISM system which is a computer system that shows various scenarios that are used to train officers. Attendees also process evidence and make molds of footprints and hands like crime scene investigators.

“For me to learn the ins and outs of the city is really eye opening and it is reassuring to me,” Lucy Gustafson said.

And during the eight weeks, a group of 14 strangers became friends with each other and the police officers who taught the course.

“The one thing I liked about this group is that you get to see the police officers in a different light,” Citizen Police Academy graduate Mary Darmon said. “They are not all rough and tough. They are people too. They are here to protect us and uphold the law. I wish more people in the community could see this.”

“How many times can you go to a police department and make 14 or 15 new friends?” Laswell asked. “We make new friends and partnerships. That is a good thing. It breaks down that steel uniform because they get to see us as a regular person…as we are.”

Upon graduation, the group was eligible to join the Volunteers in Police Service (VIPS). The 62 member strong group added 13 new members.

“This is a fantastic group not just because of the type of people who were here, but because of the diversity from younger people to older people,” Deputy chief Mark Pollock said. “It is a fantastic group of people who are interested in becoming VIPS.”

The VIPS program got its start in Belvidere in 1996. Police chief Jan Noble and Laswell attended a meeting at the Lake in the Hills police department. Following the meeting, Noble, Laswell and the Lake in the Hills police chief were chatting casually.

“The Lake in the Hills police chief says ‘hey I want to tell you about this program this Citizen Police Academy.’ We had never heard anything about it. So he goes through this program and we literally looked at each other at the same time and said the exact words ‘we have to do this.’ And that is how it started. That fall we had our first one,” Laswell recalled

“The VIP program is the best example of citizens getting involved in the community. The first step is taking the Citizen Police Academy class,” Belvidere mayor Mike Chamberlain said. “This shows the involvement of our police department in the life of the community and the citizens of the community wanting to give back to the community.”

“The VIPs saved the city an enormous amount of OT.”

Indeed they did. During 2014, the VIPs volunteered for a total of 2,931.5 hours and saved the city $131,918 in overtime expenses.

Darmon enrolled in the Citizen Police Academy with her friends Laura Landsead and Gustafson after they learned about the program from Officer John Fish who is the community policing coordinator for the Belvidere Police Department.

Concerned about last summer’s gang violence in their Ward 2 neighborhood, Darmon and Landsead worked with Fish to establish a neighborhood watch program.

“It has made us as neighbors more aware in watching out for each other,” Darmon said of the community watch program.

“It has been really nice. I have been in my neighborhood 15 years and I didn’t even know my neighbors,” Landsead added. “It really got us out in the community.”

And as a result of the community watch program, the neighborhood is safer and the VIPs gained three new members.

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