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City's Community Policing Effort Evolves Into Civics Lesson

Agencies: West Covina Police Department is among first in area to offer local government class.

October 12, 1997|DANIEL YI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tom Ayers, a 46-year-old electrician and 25-year resident of West Covina, didn't know that City Council meetings were public and that he was entitled by law to attend them.

"I had never done any city business," he explained.

Lloyd Hahn, 70, a retired accountant, was also curious about how the city worked. He wanted to know "what [officials] really do, not just what you read or hear about," he said.

Ayers and Hahn went to class at, perhaps, the last place one would expect to go for civics lessons--the Police Department.

Increasingly, police departments in California, as an extension of their community policing efforts and in partnership with their city halls, are offering citizens a window into the workings of the rest of city government. It is a natural marriage between community-oriented policing and local government public relations.

The West Covina Police Department's Citizens' Academy is one of the first such efforts in Southern California.

Conceived about three years ago, the academy was initially a place for ordinary citizens to learn more about the Police Department, but the program this fall was expanded to include classes about city planning, environmental services and other aspects of municipal government.

And the instructors are none other than the very people in charge, such as the mayor and the city manager.

"Having the mayor come down gave me a sense of the local government caring about the community," said Ayers, who read about the course in a local paper.

"It is a fairly new idea," said Julie Marengo, a communications director for the League of California Cities, a nonprofit organization that represents municipal interests in Sacramento.

"It originated in law enforcement, but a lot of cities are expanding their courses to include civics and operational aspects of city government," she said.

According to Marengo, less than 10% of the 471 California cities currently offer such courses, but the wave is catching on.

San Mateo in Northern California introduced its Citizens' Services Academy last fall, after its police chief suggested expanding a proposed law enforcement course into something "more encompassing," said San Mateo City Manager Arne Croce.

"In my 20 years in city management, I have never seen a program of this nature be so well-received," said Croce, who said she has fielded a "dozen" inquiries from different cities interested in implementing their own programs.

Just last month, Chino requested materials from West Covina's existing course to help shape a proposed program for that city, according to Chino City Manager Glen Rojas.

The academy gives city officials a chance to educate citizens who often feel like "small cogs in a great big machinery," said West Covina City Manager James Starbird.

But accessibility can also translate to exposure, as Starbird and Mayor Ben Wong found out during their presentation one recent evening.

At times, students would prod Starbird and Wong into subjects outside their carefully crafted outline.

Starbird was using the controversial closure of a landfill last year to illustrate a point about land use issues when a man's hand shot up.

"The city really blew it when they let houses be built next to the landfill," said a rugged-looking senior citizen.

Wong and Starbird took pains to explain why the city decided to close the landfill, which generated 12% of West Covina's $60-million annual budget.

According to Wong and Starbird, the city was able to close the landfill without creating a budget deficit.

The questioner and the rest of the class seemed satisfied with the answer.

But the academy is not simply a public forum for participants to air frustrations; it is intended to give them practical tools to solve their problems.

"Local government is really where the rubber meets the road," said Starbird.

Many of the lectures deal with practical aspects of local government, where city departments are located or whom to contact to get trees trimmed.

"Unfortunately, people just don't understand the form of local government, which really touches them directly, more so than federal government, state government and county government," West Covina Police Chief John Distelrath said.

For Distelrath, the program is an important component of his department's community policing philosophy. "Police departments are only one segment of the community, and quite honestly we can't solve all the issues," he said.

Attendance at the expanded version of the Citizens' Academy has been about 25 students, close to maximum capacity, according to program coordinators.

The course is co-sponsored by the East San Gabriel Valley Regional Occupational Program, a vocational training agency. The classes are conducted at the Community Education Center inside the Fashion Plaza mall.

The city's Police Department has recently applied for a $41,000 grant from the National Institute of Justice to offer the course in Mandarin, Filipino and Spanish.

"My ultimate goal is to have every citizen in this community go through the course," Distelrath said.

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