Teens learn through junior police academy
For the students of the Riverside Junior Police Academy, the role of a law enforcement officer is more than a crook catcher or “enforcer” of laws that society relies on to maintain public order.
These 10 young cadets more fully understand that police work involves wide-ranging responsibilities, from investigating violent crimes and deterring unlawful acts to policing parks and providing basic services. Oftentimes modern society has a misconception that officers have a sole obligation of hunting down criminals.
This particular fallacy can consequently impact the way police are perceived, which adds a degree of danger to their day-to-day policing services. To provide a more accurate picture of how officers spent their time, law enforcement officers in Riverside sponsor a junior police academy.
For the past four consecutive years, law enforcement officers have provided high school-age citizens with an introduction to law enforcement by providing an abbreviated overview of the responsibilities and functions of the police.
“The program is designed to motivate young people to be outstanding citizens and to empower them to function as a positive influence in our community,” said Officer Mathew Westrich. “Our program also helps to bring police officers and young citizens together in the spirit of friendship all the while encouraging them to step up and do their part in society.”
One of the academy’s instructors, Corporal Josh Bailey of the Riverside Police Department, said he hopes students gain a better understanding of what the job of law enforcement entails.
“Hopefully, they can share their experience with others and at some point, we gain a better understanding between the citizens that we serve and the people who move through our area. That way, when they come in contact with a law enforcement officer, they will have a better understanding of why the officer does what they do and what they should do in response.”
In the aftermath of the most recent deadly shooting against Officer Daniel Vasquez, 32, with the North Kansas Police Department, it’s clear to local law enforcement officers that the stakes are high.
Officer Vasquez was making a routine traffic stop near 21st Avenue and Clay Street on the morning of July 19 when he was fatally wounded in the line of duty. He was the first officer in North Kansas City to lose his life in the line of duty.
It just so happened that at the time of the officer-involved shooting, students were learning the basics of hands-on traffic stop scenarios, just four miles away. This particular duty can be dangerous for officers because of the unknown situation before them.
Like the motto “To Serve and Protect” indicates law enforcement officers are entrusted with the power to serve the community, as well as the power to use force and the power to place an individual under arrest. Some people distrust the police or fear that power can be arbitrarily used against them.
By offering ride-along programs and engaging with citizens in the community, law enforcement agencies can raise awareness that an interaction with a police officer isn’t frightening and alarming. The emphasis on the role of the enforcer often overshadows the additional services that police officers provide, including responding to rescue operations, arriving at car wrecks to assist the injured, and providing medical assistance.
Along with these job duties, law enforcement officers find lost children, counsel people involved in domestic disputes, handle paperwork and provide traffic patrol.
“I think most people think that a law enforcement officer’s sole purpose is law enforcement. That’s what we’re called–law enforcement officers, but law enforcement is a minor part of what we do. We encounter people in that capacity, but so often we are more of a public servant than anything. In 10 years, I’ve lost count of how many snakes I’ve pulled out of people’s homes or relit the pilot light on a water heater at an elderly person’s home. A large portion of our time is spent in whatever capacity people need in that moment,” said Cpl. Bailey.
Besides providing public services, police spend a great deal of time on mundane tasks such as preparing paperwork and other less interesting aspects of the job.
“For every hour we spend in contact with somebody there is easily an hour of paperwork, if not more depending on the scenario. For example, if you have something stolen from your vehicle overnight, that’s an hour or so worth of paperwork. And I may only spend 20 minutes face-to-face with the victim in a case like that,” said Cpl. Bailey.
It’s these misconceptions about police work that demonstrate why the junior police academy is so important for young people. Over the course of six days, students engage in numerous hands-on activities: computerized interactive scenarios, mock traffic stops, use of force simulators, accident and crime scene investigations, and physical training.
Rose Lagergren, one of the young adults in the junior police academy, delicately waved a fingerprint dusting brush over a paper plate to practice lifting fingerprints from a crime scene. Earlier that Wednesday morning, academy instructors demonstrated the process of securing a crime scene and provided step-by-step instructions on how a CSI (crime scene investigation) team processes an actual crime scene. By emphasizing these real-world scenarios, students gain a taste of what police officers do for a living, which adds a degree of gravitas, said Cpl. Bailey.
Since police work also requires a strong grasp of the Constitution and Constitutional Amendments, academy instructors spent time each morning talking about the liberties each provides.
“I have learned there is a lot more to policing than what meets the eye. Police have a ton of responsibilities that even I didn’t know about, and I thought I knew quite a bit. They have to know the laws and work as a team with other officers to stop wrongdoers,” said Lagergren. “They also have to think about how their actions will impact society. They can’t just carry through with what they think is right at that moment.”
The goal of the junior police academy is to teach students what it takes to be an effective officer to help students find out if it’s a career path they may want to pursue down the line.
“The junior academy is as much of a recruiting tool as it is an educational environment,” said Cpl. Bailey.
While instructors do not try to persuade students to enter the field, they believe the program will instill “confidence, understanding, and a sense of achievement that will benefit them for years to come.”
“I want to go into the Marines first and then get to law enforcement afterward,” said Jackson Bishop. In his words, the experiences he’s had at the junior police academy have “furthered his interest” in the field of law enforcement.
One of his biggest takeaways from the program was gaining a true understanding of all the responsibilities of law enforcement officers.
Bishop explained television leads its viewers to believe that law enforcement is a never-ending job of “busting bad guys, kicking down doors, and finding drugs.” It fails to show its viewers the behind-the-scenes tasks, which actually make up a significant portion of their day-to-day operations, he added.
“Officers get to help people on their worst days. The answer isn’t always throwing someone in jail,” said Bishop.
Officer Matthew Westrich awarded 10 young cadets with a Certificate of Completion from the fourth class of the Riverside Junior Police Academy on Friday, July 22 at the Riverside Community Center. Many cadets earned a special award for either their performance during a physical agility test or exemplary conduct. Cadets Adrianna Hewitt, Rose Lagergren, Hunter Moore, and Jonathan Smith received a Physical Fitness Award and Rose Lagergren and William Carius Jr earned an Upstream Award.
Riverside Mayor Kathy Rose took to the podium to congratulate all the cadets on their hard work and participation in the city’s top outreach program.
“I’m very proud of what has been accomplished on all levels not only by the young cadets, but our department and what we provide for each of you. This is a great community, and every single person here absolutely does a great job telling our story and I really appreciate it,” said Rose.
Officer Aimee DiGeronimo, Officer Bailey and Officer Westrich, who developed the program to have a measurable impact on the cadets, were praised for making the graduation occasion meaningful by going above and beyond for the cadets and their families.
“I am confident that the Riverside Junior Police Academy has changed our students’ perspective of law enforcement by putting police officers and students together one-on-one,” said Westrich.