“Academy right face, academy about face, academy sit down, stand up!” the drill instructor shouted in a police boot camp version of Simon Says.
Police officers John Sigmund, Carlos Goyenechea, and Sergio Castillo watched over the kids as they went through the routine, pointing to a boy in a striped shirt or a girl in yellow blouse, telling them to sit down. This eliminated one more of the 62 kids who attended this year’s Jr. Police Academy in Secaucus.
Started in 2002 under then DARE officers Sgt. Mike Reinke and Officer Kim Elphick, the academy has become a four-day summer ritual in which kids get to rub shoulders with police officers that work in their community.
The officers come to know most of the kids by their first names after the four-day stint.
The camp is designed to foster better communication between the town's youth and police, showing the kids some aspect of police training, and giving them an overall view of the full range of police duties.
As in regular boot camp, an infraction requires a cadet to do pushups and – the cockroach.
“Nobody wants to do the cockroach,” Elsa, a three-year-veteran of the academy said, laughing.
This is simply a kind of stretching exercise in which the recruit lies on his back on the floor with legs and arms uplifted, looking a little like a very large dead bug.
“They asked a lot of questions and were very responsive.” -- Glenn Berchtold
“My uncle was in the Marines and Army, and I would like to become a detective,” she said.
While crime-solving isn’t on the camp’s agenda, she said she’s learned a lot about how emergency services work during her three years at the academy and hopes she can return next year to learn more.
She said she learned a lot about discipline, one of the key lessons taught at the camp, and about how police, fire and EMS systems work, and how people train.
For Elsa, the trips they take are every enlightening. This year’s camp included two out of Secaucus, one to the Bergen County Police Academy, and the other to the Lakehurst Naval Airbase at McGuire Air Force Base.
Camp starts out with the basics
On the first day, they learned the basics: how to stand at attention or at ease, how to react to a command. Then over the next few days, they learned a little about what police do, that it often is more than just making arrests.
The second day they went to the police and fire academy where they got to watch fire and police training, and learn about safety in fire. At the police range, they got to observe police firing their weapons. They also went into what is called the fire house, where the kids learned how to survive during a fire – using techniques as staying low to the ground so as to be under the layer of smoke.
“Once, they got to put out little fire of their own,” said Sigmund.
At Lakehurst Naval Airbase, the kids observed members of the Contingency Response Group (CRG), who showed the kids the weapons they used, as well as foxholes. The kids saw the Army National Guard airfield, where they toured a helicopter.
“They didn’t get to fly in it, but got to look over how the vehicle operated,” Sigmund said.
The helicopter has played a critical role in American military operations since World War II, but the kids, Sigmund said, also learned about peace time uses, such as in fighting fires.
During the four days, kids got to spend time close up with police officers, developing a relationship of trust and friendship.
Sigmund and the other police officers spent a better part of the week walking the kids through routines that would hopefully change some of their lives for the better, or at least, open their eyes to a way of life they knew little about.
Although they were supposed to train in Laurel Hill Park on the last day of camp, rain drove them to take cover at Secaucus High School, where camp staff set up many of the portable training facilities and let the kids work out inside the school gym until a break came in the weather.
Then the kids saw a K-9 demonstration, a demonstration by the Secaucus Fire Department, the Secaucus Office of Emergency Management, and emergency medical technicians from Meadowlands EMS.
Glenn Berchtold, representing EMS for Meadowlands Hospital, showed the kids a defibrillator, basic stretchers, and other items typically carried in an emergency vehicle.
“I talked to them about what happens when a person gets sick or hurt,” he said.
Berchtold, who was with the kids for three of the four days (including the two trips out of Secaucus) served a dual purpose, both as an instructor and as an EMT who could be on the scene if anything happened.
With so many trained professionals around these kids, they were in the safest hands possible. And they were eager to learn.
“They asked a lot of questions and were very responsive,” he said.
Even going through the routine of Simon Says had its purpose as they waited for the rain to stop on that last day of the academy.
First, Sigmund said, the activity gave the kids the ability to get some exercise by engaging them in typical routines that any adult police cadet would do. Secondly, he wanted them to listen to commands. In a critical situation, paying attention to what is said can mean the difference between life and death. And on this occasion, the group was competing for positions in the graduating color guard, a prestigious position that would give them prominence during the graduation on the last night.
At graduation, Mayor Michael Gonnelli issued each of the 62 kids diplomas, getting a little writing cramp from signing each personally.
“It’s a good program,” Gonnelli said.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.