A swarm of forensics investigators converged on the scene, taking fingerprints, interviewing witnesses, inspecting the broken window and the blood on the doorknob. Only the blood was ketchup, the crime scene was fake, and the forensics analysts were kids attending the Junior Police Academy (JPA).
“They did a mock crime scene upstairs in a classroom,” said Det. Edgar Mendez at Lincoln School, where much of the training took place. “It was a burglary. The scenario was that the police department responded because somebody broke into a classroom.”
“We separated them into teams and each team had a reporter and a photographer,” said Joe Sitty, who runs the Academy every summer in North Bergen. “They slowly walked into the crime scene, saw the point of entry, and were advised by the sergeant to look around, see anything that can help solve this crime. So they’re writing all these different things down on who they thought they need to interview. They did really well. Both teams were able to solve the crime.”
And who was the culprit? “It was Officer Joe,” said seventh grader Toni Morrison. “He did it last year too.”
An active week
Sitty, a retired police officer, runs the D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program in the schools and the JPA as a citizen employee of the town. He first ran the academy in 2008 and 2009. Then it was suspended for several years.
“And then when Chief Dowd came in he immediately brought it back” last year, said Sitty. “He even came in and gave the kids a one-hour block of instruction on the history of law enforcement. All the powers that be truly believe in this program. The chief, the mayor, Commissioner Cabrera. We get 100% support.”
The 28 cadets were presented with a mock burglary scenario and had to solve the crime.
“Squads are broken into six or seven cadets,” Sitty explained. “They work as individual teams and then naturally as a unit. All throughout the academy we stress working as a team. In law enforcement we all work as a team. We want them to be a sharp unit. When one messes up, they all mess up. And they all as a group do pushups.”
“I actually found that physical training was harder than last year,” said eighth grader Matthew Vera, one of several returning cadets. “It still lasted for an hour, same as last year, but this year was tougher. And the dog show was also different because unlike last year when we only saw one dog, this year we saw five different dogs.”
“When he put the suit on my friend said he looked like a hamburger,” said eighth grader Samantha Vanegas about the officer wearing a padded suit for the K9 demonstration.
In addition to the events taking place within Lincoln School, the cadets traveled to other locations over the course of the week to learn about different aspects of law enforcement.
“Tuesday we went down to the firing range on 83rd St. and West Side Ave.,” said Sitty. “And then we did the 9/11 memorial and the New York Police Museum on Wednesday.”
In the past, the academy visited the New Jersey Police Museum, but this year rather than bus 28 kids to Trenton, Sitty opted to take them across the river. Adding the visit to the 9/11 memorial was Chief Dowd’s suggestion. Sitty was hesitant at first. “I was on the force on 9/11 and I’ve never been able to bring myself over there,” he said. Then he started reading through the essays written by applicants to the academy.
“I’m looking through the applications and I say to myself, 98 percent of my kids weren’t even born when 9/11 happened. Then I came across Jose’s essay [sixth grader Jose Andrade]. He wrote about 9/11. That was the deciding factor. Reading what Jose wrote. It brought me to a different place.”
Applicants are required to write an essay about why they want to attend the academy and what they feel they will get out of it. Many wrote about having a relative in the police or their desire to get fit. Some wanted to prepare for future careers.
Each squad has a squad leader, selected from volunteers. “When we asked if there were any volunteers, naturally three-fourths of the class raised their hands,” said Sitty.
Four junior mentors oversee the squads. This year the junior mentors were all employed by North Bergen’s Summer Fun program.
“We have some experience with the kids already. We have Summer Fun and we have experience having gone through the academy,” said Manny Rodriguez, one of the mentors. “Joe called me over because he remembers me from when I went through the program and he asked me if I wanted to volunteer to do the JPA and I said of course.”
“Mostly we looked over our squad. We helped out with PT, helped motivate them, helped keep them in order,” continued Rodriguez, a rising junior at William Paterson College studying computer science. “Basically ways to motivate the kids and keep them going and keep them interested.”
“They hate [the physical training] when they’re doing it,” said Sitty, “but when they’re done with it, they know they accomplished something. Instead of staying home and playing with their computer or playing their video games they’re here doing something that’s productive. And they’re here with people that really care about them. Because all the officers that come to the JPA, they love it. Edgar, for instance, was working from six at night till two in the morning every day this week. But he was here every morning teaching them PT throughout the whole day.”
Cost for the program is $75 per cadet, with additional funding provided by the Police Department and Recreation Department. Included are lunches and various items including a backpack, water bottle, and uniform.
“They know that whenever we go anywhere they’re representing the North Bergen Police Department,” said Sitty. “They’re wearing the North Bergen police uniform and they need to act accordingly.”
“It was awesome!” said seventh grader Jocelin Colin about the program. Her favorite part? “At the range. We saw all different kind of guns, how they sound like and how they shoot.”
“Did you know that the word cop came from the copper button on the uniforms?” asked an excited Samantha Vanegas, winner of the “dead cockroach” contest. (“You lie on your back with your legs and your hands straight up and whoever stays like that the longest wins.”)
Vanegas’ favorite part was probably the dog demonstration. “I want to be in the K9 unit,” she said.
“If there’s a K9 unit, why can’t there be a cat-9 unit, huh?” Mathew Vera wanted to know. “Guard cats. The only thing is you have to let them sleep when they want to sleep.”
For Toni Morrison, the highlight was the trip to New York. “I got handcuffs and sheriff badges” at the Police Museum, she said. “And then I handcuffed myself to my bed.”
Among the other officers participating were Sgt James Kube, Sgt. Sharae Ali, and Spc. Monserate Rodriguez, all of the New Jersey National Guard Counter Drug Task Force.
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.