Police Youth Academy builds community relationships

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Meridian Township Police Sgt. Scott Dawson said even when he was a kid, teenagers and law enforcement never had a great relationship.

“We’re not out to get kids, we just want them to make the right decisions and do the right things,” Dawson said. “They don’t always appreciate law enforcement because we’re sometimes at odds, you know, ruining everyone’s fun and that kind of thing.”

Dawson said when the police started its Youth Citizens Academy around 15 years ago, the goal was to build positive relationships with the community.

“We like to get them involved so they can see the reason why we enforce some of these laws, like drunk driving and [minors in possession] and things like that,” Dawson said. “They get to meet a lot of officers and see that they’re actually just real people like everyone else. There’s no reason to be scared of them or hate them, it is to try and humanize police work.”

The program was originally for adults only, but after a few years, a course specifically for high school students was implemented. The academy takes place every Thursday for seven weeks, and young adults are taught about what goes into being a police officer.

“So basically what we did was take our adult one and changed it a little bit,” Dawson said. “Kids don’t want to sit around after being in class all day, so we focus on one aspect per session.”

Each class is broken up into two parts. The first is instruction based, and the second is more hands on.

“We try to make it a little more interactive and more interesting for the kids, because nobody is going to want to do it if they just come in for two hours and listen to us give a powerpoint about the police force,” Dawson said.

Some of the topics covered in class include K-9 operations, crime scene investigation and alcohol and traffic enforcement.

“They’ll spend an hour in the classroom learning about CSI stuff, what we do, what we can’t do,” Dawson said. “Then they spend an hour fingerprinting glass bottles, or making shoe impressions, the stuff that they really want to do.”

Dawson said the reaction to the class has been positive, and has even seen kids repeat the class because they enjoyed it so much.

“When they reapply I always tell them, ‘You know this is the same stuff as last year?’ They always tell me, ‘I don’t care. It was fun, we want to learn some more,’” Dawson said. “By the end of the seventh week they seem pretty engaged and seem to enjoy it.”

Dawson said while the class is mainly for instructive purposes, he has seen kids who are interested in becoming police officers themselves take the course.

For one class, the students are taken to Lansing Community College. While there, they partake in a video simulator at the Police Academy and are taught about the potentially tough situations police officers are put in.

“The instructor can change the story based on what you do,” Dawson said. “So one time the person could pull out a wallet from their pocket, and the next time they could actually pull out a knife or a gun.”

With the simulator, students are taught the proper commands like, “drop the gun” and “get on the ground.” According to Dawson, if the students react the way they’re supposed to, the person can give up and be arrested, or attack them. They would then have respond the way an officer would in the field.

“It gives them an opportunity to see how quickly decisions have to be made, and how quickly things can change,” Dawson said.

Dawson said often times the media can portray a negative image on police officers as a whole, rather than the few “bad apples” that are out there. He said he hopes classes like these will enlighten people and help them better understand law enforcement.

“There are plenty of people out there who make mistakes and do things wrong,” Dawson said. “We want people to realize that’s not the majority of police officers, obviously.”

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