The Guilford County Sheriff’s Department is a county department, not an institution of high learning; however, recently, Sheriff BJ Barnes and his officers have gotten very active when it comes to educating citizens about certain dangers in today’s society, as well as about best practices for fighting crime and preserving public safety.

Barnes has said several times in recent months that community outreach for law enforcement is more important than ever these days in light of a nationwide distrust of law enforcement officers. He said it makes it harder to hire and retain officers and it often leads to citizens treating officers with disrespect. More interaction between officers and members of the community helps in that regard, the sheriff said.

In late 2017, after the church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department began offering on-site classes in church safety and security, and, with 2018 rolling in, the department is stepping its focus on church safety up a notch. The department is also starting up a new Sheriff’s Citizens Academy, meant to teach interested citizens about the Sheriff’s Department’s practices and operations.

Barnes said this week that the response from citizens to the safety classes after the Texas church shooting was so overwhelming that the department decided to hold more.

“Attendance was remarkable,” Barnes said of the seminars held in late 2017.

The sheriff said that, among other things, officers explained gun laws to churches, looked for unsafe practices, did a safety check of the premises and tried to find ways to make area houses of worship more secure.

“Some want deacons or guards armed at services,” Barnes said. “We tell them what the law is. They choose who they want to have weapons.”

Barnes said the department addresses the church safety issues from all angles.

“I carry a SWAT team member with me and a crime resources person as well as an attorney,” Barnes said.

The events include training for religious leaders on ways to prevent threats, how to handle them when they arise and how to respond properly once an event has occurred.

The new round of classes will be held on Mondays in late January and early February. The first will be on Jan. 22 at Shiloh Baptist Church on South Eugene Street in Greensboro, followed by a Jan. 29 class at Saint Pius X Catholic Church on Elm Street, with the third held on Feb. 5 at the Church on NC 68 South. There may be other events scheduled in the future.

At the start of 2018, the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office is also offering a Sheriff’s Citizens Academy to Guilford County for county residents who are interested in learning more about the department. Those classes start on Thursday, Feb. 1.

The stated goal of the Citizens Academy is “to improve law enforcement/community relations through a formalized educational process.”

The Sheriff’s Citizens Academy presents a condensed form of Sheriff’s Department training in an effort to familiarize citizens with the department’s mission and it is meant to give the students an idea of the requirements placed on officers as they carry out their duties.

Sheriff’s Department officials hope the citizens academy will benefit the officers as well the citizens who attend. The course materials state, “The Sheriff’s Office will become more aware of the feelings and concerns of the community, as expressed by attending citizens, and improve communication in an area where some law enforcement officers across the country have come under criticism for the way they have handled various situations.” It adds that the teachers and students will explore together “some of the traditional suspicions and misconceptions generally harbored by both citizens and sheriff’s deputies.”

Just as sheriff’s deputies have to go through a background check, so do the students of the citizens academy. The classes are open to everyone 18 or older that hasn’t been convicted of a felony or serious misdemeanor (or who got a prayer for judgment for those crimes). Students also can’t have pending charges for a felony or serious misdemeanor. The application guidelines state that the students cannot be current or former gang members or members of any organization “that advocates the overthrow of any local, state or federal government.”

The citizen academy classes, which will be held at the Sheriff’s Department main administrative office in the Otto Zenke building at 400 W. Washington St. in downtown Greensboro, will meet on Thursday nights for two months. There are also some additional Saturday labs.