It was the end of a long day. The students were worn out from midterms. Corporal Tony Contreras addressed 14 students in the Citizen Police Academy (CPA) class, a goofy smile on his face.
“What, are you guys mad at me or something?” Contreras asked the silent students.
Laughter broke the ice and the students piped up, answering questions more freely.
This is CPA, a class the UC Santa Cruz Police Department offers to UCSC students, faculty and staff. The class is intended to build a connection between UCSC police officers and the university community.
“The premise of the academy was to build bridges,” Contreras said. “I see the program really being an educational asset.”
The class was created in 2007 in response to a volatile relationship between students and the UCSC Police Department.
“It was definitely going both ways,” Contreras said, explaining the tension as a result of attitudes on both sides.
Contreras said the officers and the students have benefited from increased communication. He noticed that after participating in the class, officers take more time to assess students’ emotional stability in situations involving arrest.
However, a bitter relationship between students and police is still palpable in the university atmosphere. In 2009, the UCSC police’s march into Kerr Hall to remove students participating in the occupation was controversial among students and faculty.
A former field studies coordinator at UCSC as well as a former mayor of Santa Cruz, Mike Rotkin helped students get academic credit for learning experiences within unconventional classes and programs like CPA. He said he saw a need for improvement in student-police relations.
“I would not have carried it out the way they did,” Rotkin said of the Kerr Hall occupation. “There could have been a more peaceful interaction. The way they charged in could have resulted in some serious injuries.”
The student occupation of Hahn Student Services last November is a recent example of the distrust students feel towards university police. The protest was a response to the UC Davis Police Department’s use of pepper spray on kneeling protesters. UCSC protesters demanded all police be removed from UC campuses.
“There are situations where we should distrust the police,” Rotkin said, “like what happened in Davis with pepper spray and in Berkeley [with campus police brutality]. I don’t think these guys always do the right thing. They often do the wrong thing. But I don’t think it is helpful to think the police are always in the wrong. Often, the police are just doing their job.”
Students who participated in CPA were required to keep a field journal and write a response paper at the end of the course.
“Most students start out with an almost negative view of the police,” Rotkin said. “I’ve been arrested 30 times for things like trespassing and sit-ins. I’ve also been mayor of Santa Cruz, so I’ve seen it from the police point of view and the citizen point of view. Most students don’t get to see both sides of those issues.”
Fourth-year CPA student Daniel Maccoll was interested in pursuing a career in police services prior to attending the CPA. He said the class did not disappoint.
“I know better how to interact with police officers,” Maccoll said. “If I am a protester, I know how to talk to a police officer.”
Police Chief Nader Oweis, who was appointed in fall 2011, said the police are in a difficult position during student protests, like the student involvement in the Occupy movement.
“We really do empathize with what’s going on,” Oweis said. “We are concerned that there is no violence, and [that] people stay safe. People should understand there are different and varying veins as it relates to Occupy, and the police department protects everyone’s views equally.”
Funds within the police budget were redistributed this year to offer the class twice a year, said Oweis, as opposed to once a year, which has been the norm.
Oweis also has plans to expand opportunities for student involvement with the police department. A volunteer program is in the works, as well as “Cops and Coffee,” which would serve as police office hours at McHenry Library.
The program should be in effect in the next six weeks, he said.
Overall the class has generated interest. This year is the first year since 2009 the class has been offered for two quarters. Enrollment has increased since the course was created, Contreras said.
But some students in the class say CPA is not well publicized. Rotkin said that from what he has seen, the students who take the class aren’t the same students who are active in campus protests.
“I don’t think I’ve seen any major changes,” Rotkin said. “You’ve got to undo a long tradition of students who feel police are out of line and police who feel students are being unreasonable.”