* Last in a series

"It's often said that perception and reality are quite different things," says 1st Sgt. Mike Crosbie, of the Prince William County Police Department. "There usually is something going on in the background, and it's not always obvious what that is."

Crosbie's message is the guiding force behind the department's Citizens Police Academy, which for 12 weeks has attempted to impress upon its most recent students that the reality of being a police officer is often very different from the public perception.

Born of a mix of public relations, community policing and a solid interest in spreading the word that the Police Department wants citizen input, the academy wrapped the department's operations into a series of lectures, presentations, videos, hands-on exercises, ride-alongs and stirring demonstrations. It's an effort, police say, to erase the stereotypical image of "television cops" that many people have, an image that some feel does a disservice to the men and women who patrol the county's streets.

Included were live scenarios with the department's K-9 unit, mock arrest situations and detailed crime scene analysis and polygraph explanations. Each session revealed what some class members called surprising details as well as many "big picture" concepts.

Although not a complete run-through of police operations--citizens were not informed, for example, about many specific procedures and policies that are kept as police secrets--students said they were often "overwhelmed" by the candid nature of the discussions and by many officers' willingness to share the intricacies of their work.

"To say that we were impressed with the integrity of the officers in this department would be an understatement," said Tara Graff, a recent participant in the program who spoke at last week's graduation ceremony on behalf of fellow students.

At the ceremony for the 14 graduates of this 12th session, citizens spoke positively about their experience, which is exactly what the department wants. The main function of the program, developed by the department six years ago, is to make people aware of what police do without attempting to sensationalize it or sugarcoat it.

"Policing is a responsibility that includes a wide variety of tasks, from barking dogs to death investigations," said Chief Charlie T. Deane. "Building and maintaining public confidence is vital to the Police Department's success."

Deane himself wasn't all that interested in the program when it was first proposed. He had doubts about whether the department had the time to put together such an endeavor, and he questioned how the public would react. His initial impression was that people wouldn't be interested.

More than 200 graduates later, Deane is impressed with the results. He said he has found that the program creates a cadre of citizens in the community from whom he can seek advice and support.

Police in all segments of the department praised the program. They believe it opens citizens' eyes to the complexity of their jobs.

Sgt. Kevin Brown, wholy runs the academy, said the program's success is almost inevitable.

"I can't think of one negative thing that could come out of this," Brown said. "We learn more about the community, and the community learns more about the department. We have a shared responsibility to keep the community safe, and this can only help us reach that goal."

Topics at the academy ranged from standard hiring practices in the department to in-depth information about drug task force investigations, including one segment in which students were able to hold bags of cocaine and crack.

On one night, students were led through real-life scenarios where they were repeatedly "killed" in the line of duty while performing mundane tasks, such as a traffic stop or field interview.

Robert Hornby, 68, of Manassas, said one of his favorite sessions was toward the end of the course, when the department's K-9 unit gave a live demonstration of what its dogs can do. One officer donned a large arm guard and let a pair of the dogs go after him as if he were a criminal.

In another session, Sgt. Bob Zinn explained how his identification bureau can solve crimes based on forensic evidence, matching the reality of elements left at the scene with the sometimes fictional accounts of those who are accused of committing the crimes. He used real-life examples to illustrate how the department can re-create a crime with even the tiniest blood spatter or a minute amount of physical evidence.

During their time at the academy, citizens were also taken on ride-alongs with on-duty officers during night shifts, and were given a live weapons demonstration in addition to several simulated demonstrations at the county's training facility in Nokesville.

For the Police Department, the program has its costs: almost 45 hours of free training time for citizens, which requires staff, time and resources. And there's not much of an immediate, tangible result.

"But it creates an elite corps of our citizens who have devoted themselves to getting involved," academy director Brown said. "And they'll likely want to stay involved in the future. That's a great investment any way you look at it."

Staff writer Josh White attended the Citizens Police Academy.