Rock Falls police seek to connect with, educate public through Citizen Police Academy

Rock Falls Police Department Citizen Police Academy participants Jodi Perez (left) of Rock Falls, Valerie Villaneda of Sterling and Brent Wright of Rock Falls, investigate a mock crime scene with Detective Sgt. Doug Wolber (right) during the group's April 3, 2024, meeting. The "victim" is played by police Officer Autumn Day.

ROCK FALLS – Policing is not like how it’s portrayed on television or in the movies.

“There are some great technological advances, but the reality of what’s truly actually available on a day-to-day basis is nowhere near that,” Rock Falls Police Chief Dave Pilgrim said. “A lot of the stuff you see on TV is just … a concept that, maybe it’s out there in the real world, but it’s probably not admissible in court.”

That might change in the future as technology evolves, he noted, pointing to DNA and fingerprints as examples. Thirty years ago, DNA was a theory and, before that, so were fingerprints, Pilgrim said.

For now, though, the Rock Falls Police Department is working to educate area residents on the realities of policing through its Citizen Police Academy.

“It’s kind of an all-hands-on-deck type of approach to educating the public on how we operate,” Pilgrim said.

The Department’s first Citizen Police Academy ran from March 6 to April 17.

Participants met for about two hours once a week to learn about various aspects of the Rock Falls Police Department and law enforcement in general through presentations, discussions and hands-on simulations.

“I think of it as kind of a social goodwill investment, that better connection we have with our community. The more they support us, the easier it is for us to do our job.”

—  Rock Falls Police Chief Dave Pilgrim

Topics covered included the overall structure of the police department; how command structure works; traffic stops; radio communications; crime scene investigation; K-9 officers; women in policing; a laser-based firearms simulator; and more.

The academy is headed by officers Rollie Elder, Dustin Sugars, Brian Diaz and Autumn Day and Detective Sgt. Doug Wolber.

“We’ve had great cooperation from everybody that we’ve asked to help us do this,” said Elder, who first put together the proposal for the program. “The officers that are here are doing this off duty. They’re not getting compensated. They’re just doing it because they want to help improve relationships within our community.”

Detective Sgt. Doug Wolber (right) shows Hank and Violet Sobottka of Rock Falls, a paper bag used to store crime scene evidence during the April 3, 2024, meeting of the Rock Falls Police Department's Citizens Police Academy.

The formation of those community connections is a critical aspect of the Citizen Police Academy, Pilgrim said.

“I think of it as kind of a social goodwill investment, that better connection we have with our community,” he said. “The more they support us, the easier it is for us to do our job.”

Pilgrim said he has been pushing the idea of having the department increase its focus on community-oriented policing and public education over the last year or so. It’s an initiative onto which several of his officers have grabbed and started running, he said.

Elder said he long has wanted to start a Citizen Police Academy at the Rock Falls Police Department, having seen the type of public engagement and successful education efforts other police departments with the program have experienced.

Members of the inaugural eight-person class have been exceptionally engaged and ask lots of good questions at the end of every session, Elder said.

“My experience so far with their Citizen Police Academy has been nothing but great,” participant Valerie Villaneda said. “They are very supportive, very knowledgeable and amazing.”

Villaneda, of Sterling, graduated from National Louis University – Chicago Campus in December with a degree in criminal justice and intends to be a police officer.

When she saw the Citizen Police Academy advertised on the police department’s Facebook page, Villaneda – who plans to apply there – said she felt it was the perfect opportunity to gain experience.

“I would definitely recommend this to anyone pursuing a career in law enforcement, or even if they just want to learn more about the field of criminal justice or get connected with the community more,” she said.

The hope is to have a second session in the fall that likely will be nine or 10 weeks long instead of seven, Pilgrim said. It will expand on the topics covered, as well as add new elements, he said.

“What we’re looking to do in the future is possibly a little more of an advanced class – so maybe a crime in progress – and hopefully get some other agencies involved as maybe the Whiteside County State’s Attorney’s Office and get them to help us out,” Elder said. “Then maybe a retired judge, or somebody like that, and actually go through some mock court proceedings.”

Those interested in the Rock Falls Police Department Citizen Police Academy must be at least 21 years old, able to pass a criminal background check and have no pending court cases, Pilgrim said. Participants also should live in, or have strong connections to, the Rock Falls area, he said.

Explorer Post No. 626

Adults aren’t the only ones Rock Falls police are working to educate and connect with, though.

As of April, the department was recruiting teens and young adults to be part of Law Enforcement Explorer Post No. 626.

An offshoot of a Boy Scouts of America program for ages 14 to 20, Post No. 626 is under the umbrella of the Boy Scouts, Pilgrim said. He noted the youngest participants must have graduated from eighth grade.

“We were able to pick our number, so we took the old historical 626, which was the prefix for all the Rock Falls phone numbers way back in the late 1900s,” Pilgrim said. “Anybody who was going to be an adviser had to go through all the same training as a Boy Scout troop leader would have to – anti-bullying, anti-abuse, mandated reporter training.”

The goal is to have Post No. 626 start meeting in the spring or summer, he said. They’d meet every other week or once a month for a couple of hours and, unlike the Citizen Police Academy, it wouldn’t be for a set number of weeks, Pilgrim said.

Topics taught would include the fundamentals of law enforcement, what probable cause is, arrest tactics, crime scene processing, mock traffic stops and more, Officer Ethan Riley said.

The hope is to get some kids interested in the field of law enforcement and also to give them something to do over the summer, said Riley, who serves as the Rock Falls school resource officer.

The Law Enforcement Explorer Post program is a good recruiting tool because “they’re connecting with Rock Falls officers and hopefully they get a good impression of the Rock Falls Police Department,” Pilgrim said. “If they want to continue to pursue a law enforcement career, hopefully, they will look at Rock Falls as one of their first options. We have to continue to have people that want to do this job.”

• Shaw Local News Network reporter Payton Felix contributed to this article.

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Alexa Zoellner

Alexa Zoellner

Alexa Zoellner reports on Lee, Ogle and Whiteside counties for Shaw Media out of the Dixon office. Previously, she worked for the Record-Eagle in Traverse City, Michigan, and the Daily Jefferson County Union in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin.