Every winter, about two dozen teens gather at the Apple Valley Municipal Center to learn about various aspects of police work, from crime scene investigation to traffic stops and use of force.
While some of the kids are interested in pursuing law enforcement as a career, others attend Apple Valley’s free, seven-week Teen Police Academy simply because they are curious about police procedures and what officers do on a day-to-day basis.
Felipe Escudero, 14, isn’t interested in a law enforcement career, but he wanted to take the class when his mom suggested it nonetheless.
“It’s one of those things where you say, ‘I want to see how that works,’ ” he said.
In the nine years since she started the program for high school students, Pam Walter, crime prevention specialist with the Apple Valley Police Department, has never had trouble filling the class. In fact, she sometimes has to turn away students, some of whom come from nearby cities without teen programs.
“It was kind of intended for the kids who were looking for careers in law enforcement, but I think it’s expanded to something kids will take because they’re interested,” said Walter.
She estimates that about half of the students have a serious interest in being a police officer. For some, the program is a pathway to enrolling in the Law Enforcement Explorers program, a more intense and hands-on program for teens interested in law enforcement careers. Many Explorers are later hired as police officers in Apple Valley or other departments, she said.
“Honestly, some have come through here and I think, ‘That kid’s going to make a really good police officer,’ ” said Walter.
The program requires a background check, and teens cannot have been in trouble at school, either.
At each session, teens hear from police officers and other speakers about topics ranging from drug busts to how DNA is collected at crime scenes. One night is spent explaining the rules officers follow concerning use of force.
Teens who want to participate are later put in a scenario in which they must choose whether to shoot at a suspect, using a simulation gun with chalk pellets.
This year, students were most intrigued with the Drug Task Force and MAAG team (similar to a SWAT team), Walter noted. The visit from the canine officer and his dog was also popular.
There’s a good deal of overlap between topics covered in the teen program and the Apple Valley Citizen’s Academy, Walter said, because the teen program was designed as an offshoot of the adult program.
“This was just a natural thing for us to continue on top of our Citizen’s Academy. People who understand a little bit more about how things work and how we function become our ambassadors to the community,” said Jon Rechtzigel, chief of police. “We’re glad to commit some resources to it.”
Youths also get to see the human beings behind the badge and uniform. At the final session, officer Justin Drogseth showed a video taken by the camera in his squad car during a high-speed chase, explaining how dangerous the chases are and that they can be frightening for officers, too.
After his talk, teens chimed in, offering suggestions of places around town where drivers go too fast and asking Drogseth questions about traffic stops and tickets.
Teens often come away with more respect for officers, Walter said.
Because of the program, “If there were ever any sort of conflict I was involved in, I’d understand procedures and be of better assistance” to police officers, said Escudero.
On the last night, Walter organizes a graduation, during which teens receive a certificate and T-shirt. They also get to pose for a picture with Chief Rechtzigel.
Susan Sullivan, who showed up to see both of her sons graduate from the program, said she encouraged their attendance. Both Matt Morgan, 14, and Jon Morgan, 16, have been interested in careers in police work or the military since they were little, she said, so it seemed like a good fit.
“I told them to go into it with the attitude to get something out of every night, whatever the topic is,” she said. “They’re both very glad they did it.”
Both her sons gained respect for the profession and now understand how important it is to do exactly what an officer says during a confrontation, she said.
Rechtzigel said the program aligns well with his department’s efforts to connect with young people.
“The youth are our future, and we have to invest in them. That’s what it comes down to,” he said.