LAKE CITY, Florida — Lt. Howard Bulthius stood at the lectern before his new students and usual colleagues wearing a dark green uniform and sporting a buzz cut.
His friends call him “Scooter,” and he will educate this group of ordinary citizens on the difference between a good cop and a better cop – which often means making friends rather than enemies while out on the job.
“Some of my good friends are people I have arrested,” said Bulthius, who is a lieutenant with the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office.
On May 30, the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office hosted the first day of class in its Citizen’s Law Enforcement Academy, a nine-week program with the stated mission to create better understanding and communication between law enforcement and area residents.
In just over two months, the 13 people enrolled in Columbia County’s Citizen’s Academy will get a realistic look at what it means to work in law enforcement. The academy hopes to build a relationship with the community by doing so, said Sgt. Steven Khachigan, the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office public information officer.
The course, which meets once a week, includes everything from tours of the jail to shoot/don’t shoot scenarios in which students will have to make decisions in high-pressure simulations, similar to real law enforcement situations.
The second class, which met on June 6, covered 911 dispatch and emergency calls.
By the end of week eight, students will have gotten a patrol ride-along right before the class’s final meeting for graduation.
Mother-daughter duo Kim and Amanda Ayers enrolled together and are among the most excited to be part of the inaugural class of the Citizen’s Academy.
“I love it,” said Kim Ayers, Amanda’s mother.
This also happens to be her fourth citizens’ law enforcement course.
“It’s in the genes,” Amanda Ayers said, referring to her father, who has worked in law enforcement for more than 30 years. This is Amanda’s second time taking the course.
Others in the class have no formal connection to law enforcement.
Marcus Eikenberry, a professional video-maker and videogames salesman, said he just wanted to know how everything works. Eikenberry, 52, wants to learn about the hard decisions law enforcement officers make so he can understand their job better.
“If you know behind the scenes why certain things work certain ways, it just gives you a lot more understanding,” Eikenberry said. “You can share that understanding when people are willing to listen.”
He said he thought the people who would have benefited most from the course were the least likely to attend.
A study by the Pew Research Center found that about 26% of Americans say they do not have faith that law enforcement is working in the public’s best interest.
Some of those enrolled in the Citizen’s Academy course said they had aspirations of working in law enforcement.
Gabria Smith, 29, said she has multiple science degrees, but she has always wanted to be a cop. As the mother to a 6-year-old at home, Smith said she wants to know what juggling the job and motherhood would look like. This is her first opportunity to pursue her goal.
“It wasn’t really an option,” Smith said of a career in law enforcement. She said she has never really learned what the job entails.
Day one of the course was a general orientation along with activities and a tour of the office led by Columbia County Sheriff’s Office Maj. Katina Dicks, who is the chief deputy.
Dicks took the lead after Columbia County Sheriff Mark Hunter had to miss the class due to illness.
The tour showed off where the officers file evidence, interview suspects and keep the guns.
Bulthius is the primary instructor of the course. With his 24 years of service on patrol, he said he hopes to instill the three central values of what he thinks makes the better cop: honesty, integrity and compassion.
Bulthius recalled a man arrested for his conduct while high on drugs. When the other officers at the scene laughed at the man, Bulthius said he took it upon himself to show the man respect. He had the other officers leave while he let the man recuperate.
Bulthius said the same man saw him out in public and approached him. The two have been good friends since.
The Columbia County Sheriff’s Office is the 43rd in size out of the 67 sheriff’s offices in Florida. It has 213 employees in seven divisions.
“I’d probably bleed green if you cut my arm off,” said Sarah Wheeler, who handles the office’s records.