Since its inception in 2003, the Junior Police Academy provides kids with an up close and personal view into the world of criminal justice.
"The program started in 2003 at the request of Mayor Brian Stack and Chief of Police Charles Everett to educate the urban area children into a partnership with the police department," said Lt. Emilio Gonzalez, program director and commanding officer.
The program consists of a week-long series of events, including field trips to places such as the Hudson County Correctional Facility in Mahwah. The program also includes an end-of-the-week celebration.
At the academy, children undergo five days of actual academy training such as basic military discipline, marching drills, and correct formation. They are broken up into groups and monitored by academy instructors, as well as two members of the Emerson Marine Corp. Jr. ROTC.
On the fifth day, the young cadets get to unwind. This year they were taken to Six Flags Great Adventure, followed the next day (Saturday, July 24) by their graduation at the 39th Street Pavilion.
"The first day is orientation, and they're handed their uniforms," said Lt. Gonzalez. "The ROTC teaches them marching drills, and the rules and regulations are handed out."
On the second day, the kids are introduced to different unit divisions of the police department, including the bicycle and K-9 patrols, and the Union City EMS and Fire Department divisions that work with the police. "The kids are taught how a police department operates," said Lt. Gonzalez.
Part of the program's mission is to instill an interest in law enforcement careers, while stressing lessons in team building, the spirit of cooperation, the importance of education, working in a team, and physical fitness.
"We want to plant a seed in their minds and open up their eyes to a possible career in law enforcement in general," said Lt. Gonzalez.
The police department also hopes to use this program as a vehicle to form a stronger relationship with the community.
"We want to show the community that the police department cares about them, and encourage them to approach us," said Lt. Gonzalez.
The program also includes demonstrations of different fields of law enforcement. For example, this year's group got to see a demonstration with a state police helicopter piloted by a Union Hill High School graduate who had joined the police force. The officers wanted to give the kids positive role models they could relate to, and show them how other Union City natives have progressed in these fields due to hard work, discipline, and a drug- and violence-free life.
"This is a program that will hopefully benefit these kids through their high school years," said Officer Silfredo Lopez, planning coordinator. "We have information on all of the kids we're keeping, and hopefully somehow keep contact."
As a way of monitoring the longevity effects of the program, the Police Department would like to work in cooperation with the schools through their otter programs. There is also interest in mentoring programs such as Big Brother.
"We would also like to invite these same kids back," said Officer Lopez.
For the most part, kids have learned about the program through word of mouth. Flyers were also sent out earlier in the year informing parents about registration, which is at a first-come first-serve basis. Upon registration and beginning of the program, the kids are issued a photo ID card and standard uniform of shorts, t-shirts, and hats.
"This year we accepted 52 kids, and next year Mayor Stack wants the program to consist of about 100 kids," said Lt. Gonzalez. "We would like to take as many kids as we can handle."
The program has already attracted many boys and girls from all around the city. "We had at least 20 girls this year," Gonzales said. "They were pretty interested in law enforcement."
The first year of the program included about 48 kids under the direction of Lt. George Prunes, who were taken on a sleepaway. However, this year the program has been modified to a day camp program that begins at 9 a.m. and ends at 3 p.m.
Academy instructors this year included officers Pete Delrosso, Mike Ortega, and Pablo Jauregui. Trained EMS professionals are also on call, courtesy of the Union City Emergency Medical Service Unit, as a safety precaution.
"The kids learn how to march military drills, how to come to attention, and discipline is always stressed," said Gonzalez. "Everyone at the end was working like a fine-tuned machine."
This program is going on at numerous police departments around the state, and comes at no cost to the kids or parents. Everything is provided for them, including breakfast and lunch. Participants of the Union City program hope it continues to grow and inspire the community.
The program has already received a terrific overwhelming response from the parents.
"It was just great," said Sandra Colon, 40, who works at LaBella Restaurant, which also provides some lunches for the kids. "[My son] is very happy and he's still talking about it. It's helped a lot in his relationship with his brother. It has changed him 95 percent. I would like him to go every year."
Captain Mark Pecora, of the Union City Police Midtown Precinct, 2700 Bergenline Ave., said, "It was very well-received by all the kids, and they could [understand] that hard work, dedication, and keeping yourself on the straight and narrow leads to success."
Upon completion of the program, these young cadets receive an engraved plaque, a medal, and a signed proclamation from Assemblyman and Mayor Stack. They also get to keep their uniforms.
For more information about the program or registration for next year, please call Lt. Emilio Gonzalez or Officer Silfredo Lopez at (201) 392-3667.