Exploring a life in law

Sheriff's Department program gives kids a taste of police work

August 17, 2008|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to The Sun

Miguel Martinez knows what to look for in dangerous situations.

At age 17, he knows how to perform a building search, clear a room and handle a weapon.

On a recent afternoon, he rattled off the warning signs that someone may be using drugs.

"When you think a person is on drugs, you look for eye dilation and heavy breathing," Martinez said. "They also tense up their muscles to try to make them look bigger."

Martinez's knowledge comes from experience gained through a program that gets students interested in careers in law enforcement. The Harford County Sheriff's Office recently instituted a branch of the program.

Called the Harford County Sheriff's Office Exploring program, the initiative is a partnership with the Boy Scouts of America's Learning for Life Exploring program.

The program comprises practical experience in a career interest of the sponsoring organization; activities covering career opportunities, life skills, citizenship, character education and leadership development; positive role models and leadership opportunities; and a chance to learn in a safe environment.

"We want the kids who go through the program to finish the program and be better leaders and people, and have good character," said Capt. Keith Warner, who oversees the program.

To participate, candidates must be between 14 and 21, have a C average in school, have good moral character, submit to a background check and be a U.S. citizen.

Upon acceptance into the program, the Explorers receive instruction in areas of law enforcement including crime investigation, crime prevention, accident investigation and traffic control.

Because 18-year-olds can now work in corrections, the program provides units on dealing with prisoners, officer safety skills and firearms training, Warner said. The Explorers also are put through a mini-academy to give them an inside look at the real thing.

The young people take field trips, go on camping excursions and ride along with law enforcement officers, said Warner, one of 25 people with the Sheriff's Department who volunteer for the program.

The law enforcement agency started the program after Sheriff Jesse L. Bane realized there weren't any programs in place through his office to reach at-risk children, though the need was great, he said. About 14 percent of all arrests in the county are juveniles, according to statistics provided by his office.

"There's not a day that goes by that we aren't charging a juvenile with something," said Bane, who has been with the county Sheriff's Office for 37 years. "We've always dealt with this problem from the back side. It's time to deal with it on the front end. This society does not invest what it should in its children, in the areas of abuse and poverty. Kids need positive role models early on in life, before it's too late to save them."

After Warner was promoted to captain about six months ago, Bane approached him and asked him to start a youth program. The Exploring program started three months ago with 12 kids and now has 25 members.

Through the program, young people wear uniforms, learn skills and progress through the ranks of Explorer I, Explorer II, corporal, sergeant, lieutenant and captain, Warner said. To earn rank, the members of the group have to complete community service at events such as bike rodeos and the Darlington Apple Festival, go before a board and take a test on written policy and procedures of the Sheriff's Department, Warner said.

Although most of the kids can get through the vigorous program, recruiting has become more difficult because children who made poor choices early on in life are prohibited from joining the group, he said. Kids have misconceptions about what law enforcement officers do, Warner said, and the program helps dispel some of the false ideas.

"We aren't like the CSI shows," he said. "We don't solve crimes in an hour, or even overnight. Sometimes it can take years. We want kids to see what real law enforcement officers do. Kids are often very surprised by our duties."

The Explorers have reinforced Martinez's desire to work in the field, he said.

"I realize that what police officers do is face fears and do things others won't," said Martinez, 17, of Bel Air. "This program has shown me that I can be that person."

During the summer, the Explorers can attend a weeklong Youth Academy, an overnight program held at Harford Glen Environmental Nature Center in Bel Air that gives the young people a glimpse at the police academy.

The youth academy participants rise at 6:30 a.m. and go to bed at 10:30 p.m. Their days are packed with activities including drill and ceremony, crime lab, building searches, rope courses, inspections and field trips.

Tarah Zimmerman was enlightened about police work at the academy, she said. She grew up watching CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and has chosen forensics as a career choice.

Zimmerman, who is fascinated by science, was enthralled with fingerprinting technology at the academy, she said.

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