During a class on March 26 at the Mesa Police Community Engagement Academy, citizens got a chance to see a police officer's daily challenges. (Josh Ortega/Tribune Staff)

Mesa Police Department started its Community Engagement Academy at the perfect time. 

The program began in April 2019 and has put more than 200 participants through to help the people of Mesa “to grow the relationship between the community and the police department.” 

The event takes place on a single Saturday that mostly comes through hands-on simulations that real officers and recruits encounter. 

It also includes questions from citizens to high-ranking police commanders and officers with more than 20 years of service.

“Participants have a unique opportunity to further their understanding of police operations within the Mesa Police Department,” a police spokesman said. “Attendees are also able to ask questions and get an idea of what a day in the life of an officer can be like.”

Their most recent event took place on March 26 and drew more then 19 attendees from various parts of the city, ranging from a 22-year-old Arizona State University student to a 70-year-old retiree who has attended the course multiple times. 

The day started off with opening remarks from Asst. Chief Gina Nesbit, a 26-year department veteran who said she hopes the program provides “insight and perspective” on law enforcement. 

“Take away not just the uniform but the people inside the uniform,” she said. 

Afterwards, a panel discussion from a group of officers with a combined 111 years of time in law enforcement fielded from the community members.

Officers wanted to drive home the point that in their varied careers, so much has changed, from policy to technology. 

But the most important factor in their profession remains the need for people to fill the daily, non-sworn roles that make a department operate.

A brief question-and-answer session with Motorcycle Officer George Chwe included some common misconceptions of traffic enforcement. 

The academy then took a hour lunch break but returned for what people wanted to see the most: shooting scenarios and demonstrations display.

From 1-4:30 p.m., volunteers stepped to the front of the class as officers showed them firsthand the split-second decisions that make up what an officer must decide to do before they pull the trigger. 

Officers said much of what’s seen on bodycam never shows the totality of a situation because of one crucial bias that everyone has when watching it: they weren’t in that moment.

The most important factor that goes into a police officer shooting someone who brings threat of bodily injury and/or death comes down to getting a change in behavior and/or ending the threat. 

They said the department trains officers to put priority of safety in the following order: hostages/victims, innocent bystanders, officers, and then suspects.

Detective Richard Encinas said the academy has helped participants have a better understanding of the majority of responsibilities that officers have and helped “humanize a profession that has been demonized in the eyes of many in recent years.”

“The scenarios that allowed the participants to role-play as a police officer were well received,” he said. “And a key aspect of improved understanding of the dangers that police officers face and the decisions they have to make.”

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