Realistic take on cops and robbers

Junior academy in Sykesville teaches police techniques

June 24, 2007|By David P. Greisman | David P. Greisman,Special to The Sun

Jacob Moser stepped out from the passenger seat of a Charles County Sheriff's Office police cruiser, his right hand gripping the weapon holstered to his hip. His partner, James DeHart, walked cautiously up to the driver's side of a green Ford Mustang convertible, unsure of what this traffic stop would bring.

The Mustang had been pulled over for speeding, a violation for which DeHart issued a ticket. But while Moser and DeHart were preoccupied with asking the driver to keep his hands on the steering wheel and telling the vehicle's occupants to turn off the stereo, they missed a bag of drugs by the Mustang's console and a gun in the passenger door panel.

Neither Moser nor DeHart is a police officer with real weapons. Moser is entering his senior year at Francis Scott Key High School in Union Bridge and DeHart will be a junior at Great Mills High in St. Mary's County.

Yet for five days, they and 30 other high school students learned law enforcement techniques, endured physical training and practiced realistic police scenarios with mock weapons in Sykesville at the 10th Annual Southern Maryland Junior Police Academy, a condensed sampler of the much longer training that most Maryland police undergo.

"We take a six-month academy and squish it into one week," said Kris Syvertsen, director of the junior academy and a Charles County sheriff's deputy. "A lot of people watch Cops and say, `I want to be a police officer.' This helps you decide."

The junior academy began in Pikesville and moved to Piney Point in St. Mary's County.

In 2005, the academy moved to the Maryland Public Safety Education and Training Center in Sykesville, and the Carroll County Sheriff's Office sent officers to help out each year. In appreciation, organizers opened 10 slots so that Carroll high school students could join students from Calvert, Charles and St. Mary's counties.

The cadets arrived last Sunday evening, and a surprise midnight wake-up call foreshadowed the atmosphere and discipline that the students were in for.

"I thought it'd be a huge joke," said Eric Forbes, 15, of Westminster, a rising junior at South Carroll High. "They woke us up at 12 o'clock, screaming in our faces. I'm like, wow, this is pretty serious. It's pretty tough."

Over the course of the week, the cadets rose at 5 a.m. each day to go running, and the remainder of each day included numerous push-ups and crunches.

"You wake up still sore, and there's nothing you can do about it. There's no day off," said Tim Illis, 16, of Sykesville, a rising senior at Century High. "Probably the hardest part is pushing yourself and not giving up. It's willpower, once you get past the mental block."

Physical training was only one portion of the academy. Students also took field trips, listened to lectures and applied their education by attempting to handle multiple scenarios, including a traffic stop, a domestic assault, a mentally disturbed subject and a loud noise complaint.

"Sometimes an arrest should be made, sometimes it shouldn't," Syvertsen said. "It varies, and it's up to them to make the right judgment call."

Forbes and Illis were partners for their traffic stop, but as they approached the Mustang, two people opened their doors and ran. The cadets gave chase, leaving behind a third person who got in the driver's seat and sped off.

The lesson learned: One officer should stay behind with the car, and any pursuit should focus on the driver, the only person to whom the initial speeding offense could be tied.

Forbes and Illis were able to catch and handcuff the two people they chased. "I wasn't expecting you to run," Illis said while lifting up the now-handcuffed Syvertsen.

"You never know what to expect," Syvertsen responded.

Case in point: Kyle Woolfson and Will Stone knocked on a door in response to a reported domestic disturbance between a man and a woman. Within moments, they found themselves ambushed and held hostage, Woolfson with a fake knife to his throat, Stone with a gun to his head.

"She pulled out the handgun and caught us completely by surprise," said Stone, 16, a rising junior at Leonardtown High in St. Mary's County.

"You just want backup at that point," said Woolfson, 16, who will be a senior at Westminster High.

For instructor Dung Ross, this was the worst possible scenario.

"Domestics or disturbances like this are the most dangerous," said Ross, a deputy with the St. Mary's County Sheriff's Office. "After 19 years, I still get excited responding to a domestic because it's the unknown."

The academy teaches the cadets how the situations are supposed to go down, Syvertsen said, but the surprises show how unpredictable and dangerous the job can be.

"You get the idea that everything's real," Woolfson said. "It's not just trial and error."

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