I had only been at the crime scene for about five minutes, but the list of mistakes I'd made as an "investigator" was already several pages long.

I'd forgotten to bring gloves with me to the scene and had to send someone back to "headquarters" to get them. I picked up a key piece of evidence before the crime scene photographer was able to take a picture for our records. I was searching randomly through the car at the crime scene, picking up whatever evidence I happened to find, instead of moving through the vehicle in a slow, methodical manner and recording information about when and where I found the different pieces of evidence. In short, it didn't take me long to realize I had better not quit my day job.

Thankfully, this was only a mock crime scene part of Newton's annual Citizen Police Academy and I was only pretending to be a detective. But the experience gave me a new appreciation for how complex and challenging it is to work for a police department, and it's a service that we as citizens don't always appreciate as much as we should.

The Citizen Police Academy is a class taught by the Newton Police Department every year and gives community members a chance to peek behind the scenes and learn more about what it's really like to be a police officer. This year, I was able to be a student in the class. It's an experience I'll remember for the rest of my life.

As a reporter at the Kansan, I'd covered various police department and crime stories prior to the class, but it didn't take long for me to realize I only knew a fraction of everything that goes on at our local police department. Officers have to respond to calls; patrol the streets every day to keep the community safe; perform investigations; participate in regular training in order to keep up with changing work conditions; answer questions from the media; and many more duties, far more than I could describe in one article.

The portion of the class that made the biggest impression on me was my ride-along with a Newton police officer. For about four hours, I rode around town with this officer and had a chance to ask him questions about the situations he deals with on a day-to-day basis. I learned the officers on duty during a particular shift have a lot of ground to cover and not a lot of people to do it. Due to budget constraints, the police department is not able to have as many officers on a shift as they'd like.

We like to think of Newton as a small town, as a friendly, safe place and for the most part, it is. But our town isn't without crime or problems, and just during that four hour shift, the officer I was riding with responded to calls about shoplifting, a suspicious bag left at a local store and a reckless driver. In any given day, they may deal with domestic violence, identity theft, child abuse, and many other dangerous situations.

Every day when police officers clock in, they're putting their lives on the line. The instructors in the class taught us there's no such thing as a "routine" traffic stop, and every call they respond to could escalate into a life-threatening crisis. They have to expect and plan for the worst every time they get behind the wheel of a police vehicle. And they do it to keep the people of our community safe.

People don't always speak kindly about police officers. It is frustrating when you get pulled over for speeding and are given a ticket, even though you have this relative or friend who speeds all the time and never seems to get caught. But the fact is, the officers are just trying to uphold our country's laws which are meant to protect us.

The Citizen Police Academy was quite literally a life-changing experience for me. I'm thankful to the Newton police officers who spent time teaching us. I know spending several hours in the class each week meant they had less time to spend with their families, and I appreciate their willingness to host the class each year.

I'm also thankful for their service, and I'd encourage other community members to stop the next time they see an officer and thank him or her. Serving as an officer isn't an easy job, but it's a service our community couldn't function without. Although it's a job not every person could do, I'm grateful for the ones who answer the call of duty.

Ashley Bergner is a reporter for the Newton Kansan.