Twelve kids from North Bergen schools had an exciting week recently, getting visits from police dogs and emergency helicopters, and, in turn, visiting the court, the firing range, and the 9/11 memorial in New York City. It was all par for the course for the annual Junior Police Academy, held Monday to Friday, July 20 to 24.
“The main thing that I loved was the training, the formations that that we did as a team, and teamwork building,” said Daniel Morales, 12, from Horace Mann School. His brother is a dispatcher in North Bergen who aspires to be a police officer. Morales said, “That inspired me, my interest in law enforcement.”
When he found out in school that the town was holding its annual summertime Junior Police Academy (JPA), he jumped at the chance to participate. That entailed writing an essay on what he thought he would gain from the experience, and getting a recommendation from a teacher or administrator at his school.
“I wanted to learn how they do their job and how they fight crime and what they do at their job protecting the citizens.” –Jennifer Sanchez
“The first thing we do is we get them into training with push-ups, sit-ups, running,” said Officer Joe Sitty, who runs the JPA. “Just like when a recruit goes to the police academy. That’s the first thing they do every morning. We cut it down; we’re not screaming and yelling in their face like boot camp. But we push them to do things they didn’t think they could do. By the end of the week they’re excited about what they accomplished.”
For Morales, one of the highlights of the week was a visit from the AirMed One helicopter out of Hackensack University Medical Center. The chopper landed in the 64th Street field, where the kids got lessons from the experts.
“It’s a three man crew: a paramedic, nurse, and pilot,” said Sitty. “They explained their function with the aircraft and showed the kids the stretcher and the tight spot they have to work in. Everything is within hand’s reach. It’s basically an emergency room in the air. The kids got to go inside, two at a time.”
“It was very interesting, how they are a big part when a car accident or any medical emergency happens,” said Morales. “They have to transport the wounded to the hospital immediately.”
Learning to fight crime
During their whirlwind week, the cadets visited the municipal courthouse, where they heard several cases and got to speak with Judge Nino Falcone. They met Nero, a weapons dog from the Port Authority Police Department, and watched it sniff out a hidden gun. They took a trip to the town’s CCTV center and learned about the 110 cameras throughout the town and how they help keep the residents safe.
“We did a tour of police headquarters from roof to basement,” said Sitty. “We went into restricted areas like the property and evidence room. The kids got to see drugs and guns, and how evidence is brought into court.”
“My favorite thing about the Junior Police Academy was the shooting range,” said Jennifer Sanchez, 12. “I liked it because I had the experience to see how loud a gunshot was and how they hold it and how they shoot it.”
Sanchez has always had an interest in police work and aspires to be a police officer herself. “It’s not because I think it is going to be a fun job,” said the articulate student from Robert Fulton School, who said she regularly plays cops and robbers with her friends. (Guess which role she prefers.) “I knew it’s a lot of hard work to be one. I’ve seen how they train and it’s pretty tough. I wanted to learn how they do their job and how they fight crime and what they do at their job protecting the citizens.”
Although she didn’t know anybody else in the class on day one, she made friends with her fellow cadets over the course of the week.
“I would recommend the Junior Police Academy to other people because it’s a good experience to learn how the police officers work together as a team to protect people’s lives and fight crime,” she said.
Not yet born on 9/11
Junior Police Academies are held all over the country, with each municipality tailoring them to their own needs and abilities. North Bergen held JPAs in 2008 and 2009 before suspending the program.
“When Chief Dowd came in [in 2012], this was probably one of the first things he instituted,” said Sitty. A former police officer who retired in 2012, Sitty came back to head the DARE program for kids (since replaced by LEAD). He is also a part time class 2 special police officer working security in the courts.
Dowd asked Sitty to put together a JPA program and in 2013 there were 28 kids signed up, split into two groups. For the second year the JPA held a single session for 28 kids before cutting back this year to an even dozen participants.
“When you have a bigger group it limits some things you’re able to do,” said Sitty. “Last year was the first year we went to the 9/11 memorial and we couldn’t do a guided tour so we did a self guided tour. This year with a smaller group we did a guided tour and I felt the kids got so much more out of it because somebody actually narrated as we walked through.”
“It was amazing, I learned a lot about 9/11,” said Morales. “Even the artifacts are devastating.”
“I wasn’t born when it happened,” said Joseph Marto, 12, who found the 9/11 trip one of the highlights of the week. “It was sad but nice.”
A student at Kennedy School, Marto was interested in police work because his cousin is a police officer in Jersey City. When he found out about the program his mom signed him up.
“The kids that participate are kids that have an interest in law enforcement,” said Sitty. There was a fee of $75 per cadet to cover two personalized uniforms, a backpack, water bottle, wristband, and lunch for the week. The week ended with a barbecue at the town pool.
All of the demonstrations were provided by volunteers, with contributions from the Port Authority Police, New Jersey Counter Drug Task Force, Hackensack University Medical Center, and more. The program is fully supported by Mayor Nicholas Sacco, Commissioners Allen Pascual and Hugo Cabrera, Police Chief Robert Dowd, and Deputy Police Chief Peter Fasilis.
“Our academy stresses teamwork so much, being able to catch a bad guy because we work as a team,” said Sitty. “It’s not about one person, but a constant sharing of information between officers and police departments. That’s how crimes are solved.”
“I would definitely recommend it,” said Marto. “They should have it in every town. Too bad it wasn’t longer. It could go on for like three weeks. That would be good.”
Art Schwartz may be reached at email@example.com.