A junior police academy underway this week in Northfield, Vermont, aims to build bridges between officers and young community members.
"Being proactive about this is going to help this community in the long run," said Officer Dan Withrow of the Northfield Police Department, who heads up the junior academy. "These kids, if they see us, they're not going to run away."
That goal has taken on added priority in this somber summer for law enforcement around the country. Recent weeks have seen the killings of black men by police officers in Louisiana and Minnesota. Later, violence targeting police left five officers and two civilians dead in Dallas. This weekend, three more officers were killed in Baton Rouge, with several others injured. Another officer in Milwaukee was shot several times on a call.
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"I think police are very courageous and brave for their line of work," said Emily van Dyke, 12, a participant in the junior police academy. "The police officers always want to help. I don't think they'd be a police officer if they didn't want to."
On Monday, Withrow showed the middle schoolers how a roadside sobriety test works, using special goggles that mimic drunkenness.
The three-year old academy, run in conjunction with an after-school and summer learning program in Northfield, is about strengthening relationships between police and the town.
"It's a really bad situation," said Edward Smith, 11, describing recent cases of violence against police. "The police need to know that someone's going to trust them."
That trust, which goes both ways, is what the Northfield officers are looking to build, Withrow said.
"So that we don't have anybody who hates the police and wants to kill them," 12-year-old Colin Demasi observed of what can result from more respect between police departments and communities they serve. "You have to respect each other, because if you don't, we're going to have problems."
Throughout the week-long academy, cadets are scheduled to meet with officers from several local departments, as well as the Vermont State Police. The curriculum includes both serious topics, like human rights, and more fun, hands-on activities, such as demonstrations of how to take someone's fingerprints.
"It makes our job a lot easier while also creating a nice bond," Withrow said of the long-term value of developing better relationship with young people in the community. "We don't want them to scared of us, we want them to approach us and say, "Hey Officer Dan, can I talk to you?'"
This year, the junior police academy has 28 participants, Withrow said, making it the summer program's largest enrollment yet.