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Suwanee residents get inside look at police work in academy

SUWANEE - Suwanee police Sgt. Bryan Hickey spent more than an hour in front of a room of Gwinnett residents Tuesday evening discussing firearm safety, department-issued weapons and traffic stop procedures.

"The biggest thing is their hands," Hickey said, "you always want to know where their hands are."

By "they," Hickey meant anyone a police officer might come across in the line of duty, from a murder suspect to an inattentive motorist going a little too fast.

"There's a fine line; you don't want to be paranoid, but you want to go home at night," Hickey said. "You never know who you're dealing with."

To drive his point home, Hickey casually removed 19 weapons - all of which had been seized by police - from his clothing at the end of his presentation. His khaki cargo pants and "Police" pullover had concealed a pair of brass knuckles, knives, two stun guns and 12 pistols ranging in caliber from a .22 Derringer to a powerful .45-caliber semi-automatic.

Hickey and other Suwanee police officers spend one night a week during the city's eight-week Citizens Police Academy giving civilians an inside look at what it's like to be a cop.

During the course of the academy, officers will share their knowledge and experiences with residents, who participate in ridealongs and are made privy to department information from budgets to the latest equipment.

"We have a great time," Sgt. Nick Jacobs, one of the academy's instructors, said. "We get to have some fun, they have fun - it helps them understand better what we do and it gives us more eyes and ears on the streets."

On Tuesday, class participants - men and women of all ages - learned about the firearms used by Suwanee police, from the Glock 22 .40-caliber handgun to the Bushmaster AR-15, carried by department supervisors.

Instructors unloaded each firearm and passed them around the room so participants could get a feel of how an officer is armed. There were plenty of questions and comments, clicks and clacks as residents accidentally sent slides and bolts crashing home.

"Oops, I thought that (button) was to release the clip," one man said.

Not everyone was cognizant that the barrel of a firearm is the dangerous end and that every weapon should always be considered loaded.

Less than lethal or not, instructors dared not send the canister of pepper spray around the room.

After some classroom instruction, residents were given an opportunity to put their newfound understanding of police work to use during mock traffic stops.

In a role reversal, academy instructors became residents - often drunken, belligerent, fleeing residents - while program participants armed with flashlights and toy guns drove squad cars and initiated traffic stops.

Before the exercise, police Sgt. Elias Casanas told participants the officers' portrayal of residents might represent 1 percent of the people police deal with.

"Ninety-nine percent of them are good people," Casanas said. "They may have just made a mistake. Which of us never does that?"

The scenarios provided a lot of perspective and plenty of laughs.

"It was a blast," Charlene Goodwin of Winder said. Goodwin, 43, said she has considered a career in law enforcement and is going through the citizens' academy "to kind of see what it's like."

"I have the utmost respect for them and what they do," she added.

Jeff Ireland, 51, of Suwanee, said he became aware of the academy at a neighborhood homeowners association meeting. The Navy veteran admitted to having a "certain perception" of police before the academy, but said that he came in with an open mind.

"These guys really want to make a difference," Ireland said. "I'm really impressed with their training ... it's reassuring."

Casanas said the department is interested in creating a good relationship with the people it serves, bridging the gap between the public and police.

"I think it's great to meet the guys and see their concern for having a good relationship with the citizens," Ireland said.