Citizens Police Academy takes students behind the scenes

Oct. 13, 2013 @ 05:18 PM

Jean Huffman of Durham is a fiction writer whose murder-mystery novel she’s working on will likely include real-world experiences from a recent Durham Police Department academy.

Huffman is one of 18 people who graduated earlier this month from the department’s Citizens Police Academy, a six-week course that gives students a behind-the-scenes look at police work that can be more entertaining than a television crime show.

A trip to the forensics lab, for example, put students face to face with how police analyze evidence in murders and other crimes.

“They took us to each of the rooms where they do chemical processes, and showed us some wonderful photos,” Huffman, a 53-year-old substitute school teacher, said.

Huffman said she never realized how important being a good photographer is in forensics, especially at homicide scenes.

“They have to know so much about photography – how to take photos in all kinds of weather and conditions,” she said. “They had their pictures up all over the walls. They really were beautiful pictures – some of them were gross, of course, but some were very artistic. They elevate their photographs almost to art.”

Huffman, a former medical transcriptionist at Duke, is close to completing her novel “Dead Doc,” about a murdered doctor.

“It’s a mystery novel, and I wanted to attend the academy to get background about what police do,” she said.

The academy included a visit to the homicide division, where Hoffman picked up tidbits that may end up in her book.

“I learned that investigators have what’s called the ‘yellow book’ that contains all evidence they gather in each case,” Huffman said. “That’s very vital, because it makes them look at lots of details.”

One yellow book, for example, included facts about what food was left on a table after a homicide, how many place settings were there and whether people appeared to have fled  the house.

“It gives police a very broad picture of the entire crime scene, and that’s valuable in a court case down the road,” Huffman said.

The academy, which is free, is held on a first-come, first-served basis. It’s offered in English and Spanish, and meets from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays at Durham Police Headquarters on West Chapel Hill Street.

The academy was especially helpful to 42-year-old Eric Nesmith, who plans to become a Durham police officer next year.

Nesmith, who works in the city’s Department of Public Works, said he wanted to learn more about what police do, especially at crime scene investigations.

One class included a mock robbery and homicide using a dummy near the city’s skatepark downtown.

“They took us to forensics and showed us how to lift prints off people and other things,” he said.

Nesmith said the academy was fun and rewarding.

“I wish that everyone would take advantage of it, because you can really empower yourself and learn a lot.”