Story and Photos by Julie Gerke
Some of them have family ties to law enforcement or the military. Others dream of a possible career as a detective. Yet others just found the idea of a teen police academy something they were willing to do for a week during summer vacation.
Along the way, close to 50 teenage students learned about teamwork, strategy, gun safety, self-esteem, first aid, distracted driving, social media dangers and more at the recent Jacksonville Police Department Teen Police Academy.
“I’d like to learn more about what law enforcement is,” said Alex Courty, 14, an incoming sophomore at Jacksonville High School. “I know it’s not what is on TV. They exaggerate a lot. We get to see a [different] side of the police officers and experience what they do.”
The Jacksonville Police Department hosts the two-week summer program for middle and high school students, conducted mainly at the department’s regional training facility at Lake Jacksonville. The first week is for the younger students; the second week, for the older students.
The program is led by Dave Turner and Craig Wright, school resource officers for Jacksonville Middle and High schools, with a lot of help from fellow Jacksonville officers and the South Jacksonville Police Department, Morgan County Sheriff’s Office, Morgan County State’s Attorney’s Office, Air Evac Lifeteam, Illinois National Guard, Illinois State Police, Illinois Fraternal Order of Police and the Citizens Police Academy Alumni group.
Each week is filled with a variety of sessions, including team building and leadership exercises, that slowly build a framework of how a police department works.
Rori Mauzy, an incoming eighth grader at JMS, attended the academy last year, too. “I enjoyed a lot of the games and the people and officers I got to know,” she said.
Chase McGarvey, an incoming freshman at JHS, wanted to know how law enforcement works because “Jacksonville needs help.” He said law enforcement is a natural interest for him, but he doesn’t know whether he wants to make it a career.
Social media safety
JPD Detective Kyle Chumley was blunt in explaining the dangers of social media for young people: “It’s still ‘Stranger Danger’ [even though] they’re not in a van giving out candy,” he said.
Although the internet can be a tremendous tool for research and entertainment, it’s also a place where predators can find victims who unknowingly provide their personal background and inappropriate photos.
“If you wouldn’t share something with your grandparents, don’t share it with anyone,” Chumley said, encouraging students to block or unfriend people who make them uncomfortable and to report the behavior to a trusted adult. “Never ever, ever, ever save, share or send it.”
To enforce his argument, he used class members’ names to show what simple online searches can reveal. Even sports team profiles and published birth announcements can provide an avenue for someone looking for a way to “talk” to a young person online.
Illinois State Police troopers showed off their dogs’ willingness to search for items scented by human touch or a smell associated with an illegal drug.
Mando, a Belgian Malinois handled by ISP Trooper Ryan Bonnett, found cotton balls hidden in a conference room; the dog signaled his finds by sitting or lying down. If Bonnett waited long enough, Mando would sneak a peek at his handler, encouraging the officer to provide him with a reward.
ISP Trooper Craig Bastert ordered Titus to search the exterior of a car to sniff for drugs. The dog, another Belgian, “hit” on a meth-scented training bag left on the front seat.
When asked about the dog’s strength, Bastert led Titus to a “bite pillow” held by ISP Trooper Mike Cirrincione. The dog maintained its grip on the pillow while the trooper swung Titus in the air, pushed against the dog’s body and tried to dislodge the pillow from the dog’s mouth.
Special response team
JPD Deputy Chief Chad Moore, who leads the special response team, and SRT member Jarrett Davidson shared nighttime drone video that pinpointed suspects behind a tree line and others after the unit approached two outbuildings to serve a warrant.
The men also described and showed various types of unloaded guns, from handguns to specialized rifles, and later allowed the students to pick them up. The kids also inspected safety vests and night vision goggles.
In separate presentations, JPD Detective Luke Poore showed how the drones work and the many ways they can help law enforcement do their job more safely.
High school students participated in a building search drill at JMS led by JPD Sgt. Jordan Poeschel. The students wore protective masks and used special practice weapons as they learned to sweep and clear rooms, and to rescue hostages.
Two students, both incoming freshmen at JHS, attended both weeks of the class based on their interests and possibility of joining an upcoming cadet course.
“Now we’re with the older kids and it’s a lot more hands-on,” said Carter Holmes, 14, after his first week.
“It’s more of a safer environment,” added Brendan Hummer, also 14. “We’re starting to do [things] rather than hearing about them.”
Team building, leadership
Exercises built teamwork, trust and leadership skills. In groups of three, students worked to “walk” a pair of 2x4s, sort of like riding a tandem bike. Other students stood shoulder to shoulder and linked arms to provide a safe landing for teammates who fell backward from a picnic table. Two Illinois National Guard soldiers guided high school teams that “shot” at each other with arrows outfitted with soft pads instead of points; JPD Officer Josh Radliff coordinated a land navigation exercise in which teams of students found coordinates on a topographic map and used a compass to walk to those locations.
Angeline Quesada and Chloe Hembrough, both incoming seventh-graders at JMS, worked together on the 2×4 exercise. “You have to stay in sync or it doesn’t work,” Quesada said.
Working together means “not blaming a person” if the group has difficulty with the exercise, Hembrough added.
The biggest laughs — and example of both leadership and teamwork — came when the entire high school group tried to stand on a small wooden pallet. After many attempts and many suggestions, the group elected a leader and followed her directions to success.
For the older group, many of whom have just earned or are close to earning their driver’s licenses, safety was the point of distracted driving and Scott’s Law presentations by South Jacksonville Police Chief Eric Hansell, South Jacksonville Police Sgt. Brian Wilson, ISP Trooper Haylie Polistina and JPD Officer Lesley McNeely.
Nationwide, distracted driving accounted for 3,522 fatalities in 2021, and 8% of all crashes in 2021 involved distracted drivers, Wilson said. Texting while driving is “almost like driving with your eyes closed,” he said.
Students were paired with Wilson to drive a golf cart through a maze of orange traffic cones at the JMS parking lot. Once familiar with the course, the students were told to text on their cell phones while they drove; other officers added to the distraction by throwing volleyballs across their driving path.
McNeely and Polistina also explained Scott’s Law, the “slow down/move over” law when emergency vehicles have their lights engaged. Making room for first responders to do their jobs is “all about safety,” McNeely said.
Polistina guided the students through a computer program that allowed them to “steer” a car and use a brake, accelerator and turn signals as they drove through a simulated street. The computer screen flashed with the offense after each wrong turn or failure to follow the law, and later showed the amount of the related fine, car repairs and increased insurance costs.
Project Blue Life
A computer program shared by the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police let older students experience the “shoot/don’t shoot” decision officers may face. Of three scenarios, two involved people with guns; the third involved someone with a pocketed cell phone who didn’t immediately respond to officer commands.
Students, acting as an officer, used a special weapon to point at the screen as the interactive program allowed them to issue commands — shoot or be shot.
“Nothing [in the officer’s life] will be the same after this,” said presenter Jeremy Kyle, an Effingham Police Department officer, explaining officers suffer short- and long-term effects from shootings, both psychological and physiological.
The program is available to schools, businesses, city councils, school boards and other agencies to better understand how officers decide whether to shoot.
Attendees from the middle and high school programs were feted at graduation ceremonies at the City of Jacksonville Municipal Building. Middle school program attendees honored were: Jared Adams, Abygale Angelo, Cameron Bedford, Melanie Browning, Destiny Carter, Grayce Chambers, Dawson Clanton, Graecie Coleman, Stormy Damm, Christopher Fairfield, Chloe Hembrough, Heaven Hogeboom, Carter Holmes, Brendon Hummer, Hailey Lonergan, Jayce Lovekamp, Rory Mauzy, Mason McDonald, Chase McGarvey, Konner McGee, Thomas Meehan, Addison Myrick, Jenna Nault, Elise Williams, Ethan Price, Karlie Probst, Angelina Quesada and Evan Shilings. The high school program attendees honored were: Jameal Burries, Brendon Clanton, Alex Courty, Madison Davis, Zada Deatherage, Clarissa Hennessey, Carter Holmes, Brendon Hummer, Saige Israel, Jaycee Jackson, Nevaeh Matthews and Joseph Mull.