The recruits stood in formation, watching the helicopter descend on the grassy field inside James Braddock Park. Then they marched single file to the aircraft to listen to instructions on airborne police surveillance and rescue operations.
It was the culmination of a long exhausting week of training for the 38 “cadets,” all of whom had just completed sixth grade. These were the 2014 participants in Guttenberg’s annual Junior Police Academy.
“The academy was created many years ago, but back then it was a once a week class,” said Sgt. Leonardo Ramirez of the Guttenberg Police Department. At that time the program ran for five or six weeks over the course of the summer.
Eight years ago St. Ramirez was approached by his lieutenant. “He said, ‘Why don’t we come up with something more like the real police academy, and pull it all together into one week.’ ”
The program that Ramirez developed – with the assistance of other volunteers both within the department and outside – is an intense agenda designed to educate the kids about public service, including county government, the judiciary, emergency service, and law enforcement.
Their motto: “Honor, respect, commitment.”
Going to jail and more
Guttenberg students are introduced to the DARE program in fifth grade – Drug Abuse Resistance Education. Then at the end of the following year they are given the opportunity to sign up for the Junior Police Academy.
The free program puts them through their paces with drills, exercise, and strict discipline.
“We have a week to prepare the children,” explained Ramirez. “We have exercises in the morning and practice marching, cadences, salutes. If we see the class is performing at a level we believe is good, we’ll push them a little harder. We want to achieve the best quality from kids.”
“The parents say to us, ‘What did you do to my child? He’s calling me sir, or ma’am.’” –Leonardo Ramirez
The program also provides the kids with an opportunity to experience new and exciting things, like meeting a helicopter crew, and visiting prison.
“We take them to the Hudson County Jail,” said Ramirez. “They’re escorted throughout the jail. Some inmates who are on good behavior speak with the children. There’s no contact and a big separation between them. It’s like a Scared Straight tactic, but very respectful.”
That’s just one of numerous destinations packed into an exhausting week.
“This year we went to the marine aircraft carrier in Newburgh, New York,” Ramirez continued. “There the children were able to go into a facility that no civilian can enter, and they saw airplanes that carry food and medical supplies to war zones. We also participated in handling of weapons, different kinds that are used in field training.”
Among the other destinations they visited were the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. The kids took a trip to Guttenberg Town Hall to see where the police work, the cells, the equipment, and the vehicles.
“What they’re supposed to take away is knowing what a police officer does and goes through to become a police officer,” said Ramirez.
The young recruits are organized into squads, each with a squad leader chosen from among the kids. The squad leader reports up a defined chain of command to Commanding Officer Ramirez.
This year the week ended with a graduation ceremony on Wednesday, July 2 at Anna Klein School. The recruits sang the Guttenberg JPA song (yes, there is one) and each squad demonstrated what they had learned during training.
“They try to compete with each other at cadences,” said Ramirez of the graduation performance. “Whoever performs best gets a prize.”
“We have a lot of females go through the program,” Ramirez said, noting that he sometimes pits the genders against one another to foster competition.
At the same time, cooperation and teamwork are stressed. “No child sits alone,” he said. “We always pair them up with someone. And we try to get the shy child to become a leader in the group, in whatever he does, in order not to be bullied.”
This year’s class was the smallest to date. Previous years have seen between 40 and 60 kids participate. Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, both from the kids and from their families.
“The parents say to us, ‘What did you do to my child? He’s calling me sir or ma’am,’” Ramirez said, laughing. “The compliments we receive from parents about how their child has performed at home are rewarding.”
And so is the feedback from the kids. Although a child can only participate once, the program has seen numerous siblings go through training, with one of the kids this year representing the fourth “cadet” in his family, and another the third.
The Guttenberg police department took months to organize the one-week program. Among those involved were Investigator Shaundell Barker, who acted as second in command and head drill instructor, and Investigator Joseph Keselica, who served as senior drill instructor. Officers Steven Diaz and Jesus Garcia were drill instructors/motivators, and Lieutenant Numargo Vasquez was drill instructor/emergency medical technician. Volunteers Crissy Molina and Lauren Garcia were activity coordinators.
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.