Sometimes crime is easier to fight than the bad image many people have of police.

Some people view police officers as intrusive; others see them as power hungry. And movies and television don't help. They often portray officers as thrill-seekers or incompetent and lazy.

Six years ago, Prince William police launched a mission to change all that.

Last Wednesday, the department began the 12th session of its Citizens' Police Academy. The program aims to educate people about every aspect of policing, from the basics taught at the county's highly rated police academy to the technical aspects of polygraph, to the use of firearms and to the everyday life of a police officer.

The students won't walk away with a badge or any official authority. Instead, police officials hope the citizens will be better able to evaluate their Police Department and serve as a cadre of advisers and an unofficial "sounding board" on department policies.

"At first, I was concerned about whether we could do it and would the citizens be interested," Police Chief Charlie T. Deane said. "I was overwhelmed by the success.

"The purpose of this academy is not to make you experts, but I suggest to you that you'll learn some things about the Police Department that you don't know," he said. "You'll learn about and respect the people who work in the police force, and you'll be walking in their shoes.

"The greatest respect you can show is being interested in what we do," he said.

With more than 200 graduates after its first class began, the academy has become a popular citizens outreach tool that appeals to county residents from all walks of life. Some work in the criminal justice system and want to know more about policing. Others have relatives who are police officers. And yet others show up simply because they are interested in how a police department works.

The department tells the citizen students that they "have no secrets" and "nothing to hide," essentially opening the book and turning the pages so the community can get an insider's look. Discussing use-of-force issues and training procedures Wednesday, officers were candid in answering questions and spoke of how although the department would love to be perfect, everyone makes mistakes.

Deane spoke about dismantling myths about policing, expecting that the citizens' academy participants won't "take anything for granted" when evaluating the department. He encouraged members to speak out about concerns and to listen carefully to the responses--in essence, he wants participants to keep the department honest.

"For example, I get beaten up a lot about response times," Deane said. "I try to explain that we will never have the resources to have a police officer on every corner, that we can't have someone out there right away for every barking dog. We have to prioritize our calls. Where we fail is that we don't always reassure the victim when they call and explain to them that for some things, it may take some time to respond."

Officers say they hope that by laying it all out on the table, residents will be better able to offer support and advice in the long run, creating a group of alumni that can more accurately evaluate information and new policies as they are proposed.

For Kathleen Franklin, 25, of Manassas, the course is a way to expand her criminal justice background. She said she thought taking the course would help her better understand how the police department works and perhaps enhance her own skills as a private security analyst.

"Criminal justice issues have always interested me, I just can't get enough of it," Franklin said.

Sgt. Mike Crosbie, who runs the training program at the county's Criminal Justice Academy, said the citizens' academy participants are usually surprised at the rigorous and often unforgiving training program that all recruits must complete before becoming a sworn officer in Prince William. He said many people have a distorted view of police work from television or movies.

Speaking to the class Wednesday, Crosbie said much of the training is geared to teach recruits how to respond to pressure situations while culling out those who can't handle such stress.

"If you can't react under pressure, you can't really handle this job," he said.

"What the perception of police work is is very different than what it actually is," Crosbie said. "It's not all action and the 'World's Scariest Whatever.' There's a lot of mundane work involved. There's a lot of slow time driving around waiting for something to happen, interspersed with extreme moments of terror."

Citizens' academy participants also got a primer on the county Police Department's history, which stretches back only 29 years. Lt. Bill Hunt, a retired officer who started on the force in 1970 as one of the original 42 members of the department, talked about the incredible growth and changes in the county since then.

On July 1, 1970, the group of 42 officers opened the Prince William County Police Department after the Board of County Supervisors voted to establish a local police force that came under its scrutiny and control. The Police Department, separate from the Prince William Sheriff's Department, had four squads and three to four officers at a time working the streets of the entire county.

In their first month, officers handled 1,916 calls for service in a county that had about 111,000 residents. In August 1998, with a county more than double the size, the same department handled 18,506 calls for service, an increase of 965 percent.

Today, the department has almost 400 officers and is continuing to grow.

Robert Hornby, 68, of Manassas, said he has watched much of that growth. He said he has always been interested in law enforcement but never really knew where he could go to learn more about it. Hornby, a semi-retired teacher, said his wife, who is involved in law enforcement herself, suggested that he take the course.

"She said she thought it would be good for me," Hornby said, smiling. "And I thought it was about time that I get some insight into law enforcement."