Colombian-born Yilda Zuniga was never too fond of cops.
She attributed her feelings, in part, to where she grew up — a country in which police often are labeled corrupt — but it was also because of what she has seen portrayed in the media, she said.
“Moving here, everything you hear is bad; everything you see on the television is bad,” the Tustin resident said. “I did not have a good opinion.”
Zuniga enrolled in Tustin Police Department’s 16-week Citizen’s Academy because she was curious and she wondered if anything could change her deep-seated impression.
“My opinion has totally changed,” she said. “I see now that (police officers) have feelings and they are human. I am much more appreciative of what the police do.”
Zuniga was one of 21 students who graduated from Tustin PD’s 40th Citizen’s Academy class on Nov. 10 with a celebratory dinner at Citrus Café.
The academy was designed to educate the community on how the department works and shed light on the variety of situations officers face every day.
“I would recommend the Citizen’s Academy so people know what’s going on in their community and know what to realistically expect from their police departments,” said student Brian Meagher, 50, of Tustin.
Some lessons were driven home by unique hands-on experiences from learning how to shoot a firearm to an in-depth tour of the Orange County Sheriff’s Coroner’s Office.
Tustin’s operations were covered in a variety of classes with topics including ethics, community resources, narcotics investigations, the K-9 unit, property and evidence, patrol, use of force and chaplain services.
Each citizen also signed on for a ride-along to get real-world experience of what it’s like to work in law enforcement.
For Tustin resident Wade Weakly, 52, ride-along was the most eye-opening part of the course.
“You never know what’s going to happen and people don’t get to see that side,” Weakly said. “You find that police are out there helping people try to solve their problems.
“It’s like you’re a problem solver, but your problem sometimes concerns people with weapons and people who have bad ways of thinking. It’s intense.”
Each student was drawn to the class for various reasons — some out of curiosity, others out of civic duty and others to gain insight into a career they’d one day like to have.
“It was very interesting to see all the different aspects of how the department works,” said Manuel Hernandez, 25, who is interested in becoming an officer. “I wanted to learn more about police and I liked seeing their training, their knowledge and how everyone in the department works together.”
Whatever pulled them in, Tustin Capt. Steve Lewis said the Tustin PD is appreciative residents took the time to learn more about the department.
“For the 500 students who have gone through the program since it started, they each tell their family and friends and it reaches 5,000 people,” Lewis said. “That’s gone a long way to foster our police-community relations.
“It’s really nice to see the community support us.”
The Tustin Police Department presents two Citizen Academy classes a year.
Those interested in attending can either contact the police department by phone (714-573-3272), online ( http://www.tustinpd.org/CommunityPolicing/CitizenAcademy.htm ), or by coming into the department in person (300 Centennial Way, Tustin, CA 92780) to fill out an application.