A Taste Of Law Enforcement

Academy Gives Youngsters A Look Into Police Life

July 19, 2009|By Don Markus | Don Markus,don.markus@baltsun.com

The confrontation is becoming heated.

"Get off my leg," the suspect says, face-down on the bathroom floor.

Two police officers struggle to handcuff him, and after getting him to his feet, the suspect comments on how the cuffs behind his back are a bit cockeyed.

The room bursts into laughter.

"This is where you can make mistakes," Howard County police officer Glen Weir says.

Weir is talking to Colin Irwin, a 16-year-old rising junior at Centennial High School, and his 15-year-old partner, Amani Jones, who'll be a sophomore at Glenelg High School. Along with 24 other Howard County teenagers, they spent part of last week at the county's first Youth Police Academy at the James N. Robey Public Safety Training Center in Marriottsville.

Instead of doing what most of their friends were doing during summer break - going to sports camps, vacationing with family or simply hanging out at home with friends - the teenagers were learning what police officers do by taking in-class training and then applying it to situations such as domestic disputes, bank robberies, burglaries, armed attacks and even high-speed chases, albeit in a simulator.

"It's a modified version of the 36-week police academy," says Sgt. Ricky Lee, a 23-year member of the Howard County police force who supervises the program. "Obviously, we can't do everything we do in a four-day period, but it gives them a taste."

The program, believed to be the first of its kind in the Baltimore area, took shape last fall. Lee, who supervises the Police Department's school resource office, began identifying potential candidates. According to Lee, students had to receive a recommendation from their school principals, carry at least a 2.5 grade-point average and have never had any "adverse" contact with police. There were 41 applicants, and Lee hopes that the program can grow to include more students in the future.

While some can go right from the classroom to a variety of settings with a natural ease, others struggle and learn they might have put themselves in danger had they been out on patrol. Weir and other officers helping with the training give constructive criticism.

Lee says that the program is also about building trust between teens and police, a continuation of what he and the 13 officers assigned to the county's high schools try to do each day during the academic year.

"This is a way of maintaining contact with them," Lee said. "We try to forge those relationships. Hopefully, these kids [in the program] can be a good voice for us and also a wealth of information. It helps lower barriers. The culture these days, there's a negative connotation about talking to police, 'Don't Snitch' and things like that. But after going through a program like this and hanging out with us all summer, they find out we're not so bad. We're trying to change a perception."

The Youth Police Academy is the middle step in an initiative to build relationships between youth and police. The first is the department's PLEDGE camp for those going into ninth grade, the name being an acronym for "pride, leadership, education, diversity, gang resistance and evaluation." There is also the year-round Explorers program for 14- to 18-year-olds. At 18, those with an interest in law enforcement careers can become cadets.

"I've always kind of wanted to be a police officer," Jones said. "I love to help people, that's one of my favorite things to do. I think I communicate well."

Jones says that the police training has been educational.

"It taught me a lot more about what cops do and everything," Jones said.

Irwin learned about the Youth Police Academy when Lee spoke during one of his classes last fall.

It has not been exactly what Irwin expected.

"I thought there'd be a lot less of the actual classroom learning. It's not a negative; just different," Irwin said. "But it's been a blast, all the skills they've provided. I'm learning a lot."

Sara Thacker, a 15-year-old rising junior at River Hill High School, says that she is "open" about what type of career she wants to pursue, but that the past week has given her another option.

"It's been a really good experience," said Thacker, one of six girls in the inaugural program. "I never knew this much about police officers and how they work."

Lee said that the attitude of the campers evolved quickly throughout the week, which culminated Friday night with a graduation ceremony.

After struggling to get out of their cots for a 5:30 a.m. wake-up in order to be ready for light calisthenics and a jog at 6 the first day, they were in uniform and ready to go at 5:15 a.m. Tuesday.

Throughout the county, others do what teens do best during summer - sleep.

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