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Editorial: Back to School; Civics Lessons in Lebanon, Hartford

With Labor Day safely in the rearview mirror, it’s time to focus on the opening of school. We’re not thinking only of the kids here, either. Both Lebanon and Hartford are offering adults the opportunity to learn about different aspects of municipal government.

Yes, we know. What about the yawn factor? Well, local government is by no means one long boring slog through arcane-ia, although there certainly are moments of that. Actually, it can be pretty interesting and sometimes very important. So bear with us.

The Lebanon Citizens Academy will welcome an inaugural class of up to 30 residents for two-hour courses on three Thursdays this fall, drawing on the expertise of city department staff and outside authorities. Applications will be accepted through Friday. The topics are City Management 101; Public Safety and You; and the city’s efforts to identify and preserve the character of its different neighborhoods.

The point, according to City Manager Greg Lewis, is to promote civic engagement by enabling people to understand more fully how city government works, as well as giving them an appreciation for the challenges and opportunities Lebanon faces. If knowledge is power, then the Citizens Academy could be thought of as an exercise in empowerment.

An ancillary benefit is that it might build a deeper bench of knowledgeable candidates for public office, both elected and appointed. Potential candidates typically emerge after being exposed to city government through an issue of particular concern to them. Where the Citizens Academy could help is by providing background in how municipal government works, the lack of which sometimes discourages those residents from further participation. And certainly it could help the city fill slots on boards and commissions that do important, although often overlooked, work.

The Hartford Police Department has a similar initiative in mind, a Citizens Police Academy intended to inform residents about “the purpose, rationale and context of police procedures.” The nine-week program, which will accept about 30 applicants, will include lectures, tours and hands-on experience.

Given that many Hartford residents have had misgivings about how the town’s police force has operated in recent years, and in particular the often aggressive nature of their interactions with ordinary residents, this potentially represents an intriguing possibility for creating the kind of community dialogue that has been sorely needed for a while.

The detailed application to participate creates a concern in our mind, though. It asks for sufficient information so that a criminal background check can be conducted and asks questions such as “Have you ever had contact with the Hartford Police Department? If so, was your experience positive or negative?” If the point is to screen out anyone who has had a negative experience, the value of the course will be limited.

More citizens having a better understanding of the rationale for police procedures undoubtedly would be a good thing. Officers perform a difficult job, often in high-stress circumstances. But police officers also need to gain an appreciation for the fact that what is standard procedure for them might look very different to the person whom they have stopped for a traffic violation. So one hopes that the Citizens Police Academy will be located on a two-way street.

Related

Letter: Those Who Keep Us Safe

Monday, December 16, 2013

To the Editor: The Hartford Police Department successfully completed its inaugural Citizens Police Academy earlier this month. Every Tuesday evening for nine weeks, Hartford police officers and several guest speakers spoke to 30 members of the public on topics such as requirements and training to become a police officer, patrol operations, crash investigations, domestic violence, use of force, court procedures, …