TOGUS — For the first time in about 15 years, the Augusta Police Department has been offering a set of classes to a small group of area residents who want to learn about the department’s workings and the experience of being a police officer.

For much of the so-called Citizen’s Police Academy, the participants have gone into a classroom in the Augusta Police Department to learn about topics including criminal law and drug enforcement. They’ve also been participating in ride-alongs with police officers.

But this week was different. Rather than sit in a classroom or a car seat, the participants drove to the Police Department on the Togus campus of the VA-Maine Healthcare System, where they were handed fake guns and brought before a projector screen.

On that screen, previously videotaped actors pretended to be engaging in potentially criminal behavior — for example, getting into a fistfight, or trying to enter a locked convenience store — and the students had decide whether to shoot or hold fire and try to defuse the situation.

The interactive videos were part of a simulator run by the Togus police force, which is meant to prepare police officers for situations in which they may need to use their firearms.

Officer Justin Drescher, of the Togus police force, controlled the simulator. Sitting at a computer, he chose plot lines for the actors. At his control, they delivered programmed lines and took other actions on the large projector screen at the front of a classroom.

The first participant was Jill Gallagher, 35, of Augusta, who carried a 9 mm Beretta pistol in a holster on her waist. The gun was not loaded, and instead shot invisible lasers that were recognized by the screen.

Drescher first played a simulation of a man who was grabbing a scantily clad woman threateningly. The actress appeared to be high and carried a hypodermic needle.

After Gallagher yelled at the woman to put the needle down, the male actor pushed the woman to the ground and pulled a pistol out of his waistband, firing several rounds straight out of the screen. Gallagher managed to pull her pistol out and shoot two rounds back, but not before five had come her way.

“You can see how much is going on,” Drescher said afterward.

In the second simulation Gallagher took part in, a man appeared to be robbing a warehouse and at one point grabbed a crowbar. But that simulation ended peacefully, when Gallagher forcefully told him to put the crowbar down and — on Drescher’s direction — he complied.

“It was kind of nerve-wracking,” Gallagher said once she had finished the simulation. “It was so realistic.”

According to Officer Brad Chase, the Augusta Police Department’s community resource officer, the goal of the Citizens’ Police Academy is to help citizens understand the challenges of being a law enforcement officer, including the pressure that can come in dangerous situations where force might be needed.

Going forward, Chase hopes to offer more academies, maybe twice a year. They are free and open to anyone in the Augusta area, but residents will get priority if many people sign up, Chase said.

Another participant in the program, Jeff Crane, 73, said that his son served on the police force in Concord, New Hampshire, for many years.

“I’m so glad he’s done,” Crane said.

Crane, an Army veteran who served in the Vietnam War, participated in the program because he wanted to get a better sense of what it’s like to be a police officer, and he came away impressed.

“We see these guys driving in their cruisers all the time,” he said, “but you don’t really know what they’re going through.”

Charles Eichacker — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @ceichacker

 

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