LAWRENCEVILLE -- At Thursday's graduation for the 20th class of the Gwinnett County Citizens Police Academy, Police Chief Charles M. Walters said the goal of the academy was for participants to see the police department, "warts and all."
Judging by the new graduates' reactions, there weren't a lot of warts to find.
"It's just made me wonder who would ever want to move out of Gwinnett County, because you've got such a great police department here," said graduate Ann Robinson, a Norcross resident.
"It's been just wonderful."
The annual nine-week, 18-session program is led by Gwinnett officers from all fields of expertise and gives citizens a first-hand glimpse into what cops go through every day: everything from terrorism prevention, homicide investigations and K9 operations to DUI protocol and jail tours.
Any Gwinnett resident over 18 can participate, but far more applications are received every year than there's room for, so participants end up going through a screening process "almost like a hiring," police department spokesman Cpl. Edwin Ritter said.
Even after making it through the driving and background checks, it's a full-blown commitment, and not for the faint of heart -- this year's class began with 47 members.
Only 15 graduated.
"It's just given me a broader horizon of what these guys really do ... You see things on the news and you only get a blurb," said graduate Steven Bass, a consultant from Lilburn. "You kind of see these folks as human beings, and the darker side of society that they have to deal with day-in and day-out."
Even being exposed to that dirty side of society turned out to be a positive, though, graduate Debra Ivey said.
"It's been phenomenal," Ivey said. "I thought it would scare me more, that I'd be afraid to leave my house because of all the criminals and all the gory stuff we saw. But I feel safer because of all the things I know go on behind the scenes."
Like the 19 classes past, the Gwinnett County police department hopes this group of alumni will be "our ambassadors," Chief Walters said.
And, by all indications, they will be. After receiving their "diplomas" Thursday, the class actually presented their new mentors (Walters and main organizer Cpl. Michele Pihera among them) with plaques commemorating their "outstanding support and training that will help us in our community."
It was truly a bonding experience for both parties.
"If everybody could see how good it is," Robinson said, "I think they'd be tickled pink to pay their tax dollars for the police department alone."