NEW CANAAN — When Peter Hanson arrived to a 911 call about a potential burglary at a Smith Ridge Road home, his first response was to talk to the man attempting to jimmy the house door open with a screwdriver.

“What are you doing here?” Hanson asked.

“I’m trying to get into my house,” the man replied. “I lost my key.”

Hanson asked the man for identification and walked up closer to see it when the man suddenly showed how easy it would be to stab Hanson with his screwdriver.

Luckily, Hanson is not a real police officer, the “suspect” was an actual officer with the New Canaan Police Department and the Smith Ridge Road home was in fact a room in police headquarters. The simulation was part of last year’s New Canaan Civilian Police Academy.

Run by Sgt. Brian Mitchell, the nine-session program uses hands-on methods to teach civilians how their local police department operates. Applications are being accepted through March 31 for this year’s class.

According to New Canaan police, the citizens academy was started around 2009 and ran occasionally until 2012. Mitchell decided to offer the program again last year and worked on designing the curriculum himself.

More Information

To apply

Applications for the 2018 Civilian Police Academy are available at newcanaanpolice.org and can be submitted to Sgt. Brian Mitchell by mail or email at brian.mitchell@newcanaanct.gov. Class size is limited to 20.

“For some reason, it had fallen by the wayside,” Mitchell said. “We wanted to start it back up to reach out to the community. The goal of the program is to get members of the community who have time to commit to come in to engage in a classroom, but laid-back format where it’s interactive.”

The program runs this year from April 26 to June 21. Each session is three hours. Mitchell said applicants must be able to commit the necessary time to the program, have a clean record with no felony or class A/B misdemeanor convictions and be at least 18 years old. Preference is given to New Canaan residents who apply.

Last year’s class was drawn to the program for a variety of reasons, most rooted in curiosity for what police officers do.

Peter McAleer, a resident of New Canaan for 22 years, said bad news focused on the police made him want to learn more about the field. McAleer works as a financial adviser, but set aside time in the evening to attend the academy, even staying late some days to chat with his classmates.

“At the time, there was a lot of bad national press regarding the police,” McAleer said. “I was very curious on what they had to offer and what they were going to share with us.”

Class members learned about DNA testing, DUIs, youth interaction and animal control, and had the chance to go along on a ride with an officer. Many participants also took part in a role-play situation, such as the one Hanson recalled. In the simulations, they had to respond to fictional police calls armed with police equipment, including an actual weapon filled with detergent bullets that cause a welt when fired.

Beth Reifers, a Norwalk resident and New Canaan Community Emergency Response Team volunteer, said this was the most striking of the nine classes.

“I think the most dramatic thing was the last class, where we put on all the gear if you were to go into an emergency situation,” she said. “It’s heavy; it’s hot; it’s cumbersome. I had a greater appreciation for what it’s like to go in and do something like that. You have to assess what is going to happen and then move accordingly. A lot of people wonder why the police do things and seemingly overreact, but I understand a lot better.”

Bill Malone, an 82-year-old New Canaan resident, said the course left him with a newfound appreciation for how difficult it can be for police officers to make these potentially life-changing decisions.

“It’s incredibly difficult to make those decisions accurately,” he said. “I think members of the class were probably wrong more than they were right. You have some appreciation for how valuable training police have gotten at the academy is in terms of reaching these very quick decisions under a great deal of pressure.”

Overall, most course members from last year’s class said they left the course with a new understanding of law enforcement and as a new appreciation for the work the town’s department does. McAleer said he was impressed by how New Canaan police devote a lot of time and energy to training, as well as monitoring best practices. Similarly, he was pleased with how officers who taught the course were open and honest, even answering tough or unflattering questions about policing.

“It was really interesting,” McAleer said. “There’s so many things the police do that we as citizens take for granted. They’re dealing with problems and they’re going into bad situations sometimes and stressful situations sometimes and they don’t know what’s behind that door.

“… I got a really fresh, healthy perspective of police and what they do and a newfound respect for the difficulty and importance of their role in keeping the fabric of our society together.”

Hanson, whose prior experience with law enforcement was limited to getting pulled over for having snow on his license plate, said he now makes an effort to say hello to every officer he sees in town.

“You’re going to learn what these people do,” he said. “The New Canaan Police Department does this because they realize most of the public’s interaction with police is negative. ... They’d like to have some positive interaction, and that’s what takes place here.

“These are regular people doing their jobs,” Hanson said. “They’re proud of what they do, and I’m proud of them.”

ekayata@hearstmedia

ct.com; @erin_kayata