Some children dream of being police officers. A northern Illinois park district took some youth through a simulation.
Lisa Hodges is the community service officer for the district’s police department. She said park district officers have participated with the Rockford Police Department in past youth police academies.
“But this is the second year of our own. And this year, a little modified in numbers due to the fact of the COVID,” she shared. “So, we did some, you know, changes to that. But we were able to use our in-house, park district staff, which is amazing.”
Sergeant Ben Champion was there to guide children through different scenarios.
“So, you haven’t touched any of your weapons, why is that?” he questioned during one of the instances.
Champion said he was impressed with the youth’s engagement.
“I was actually surprised with how much they retained and how much they learned just by observing, instead of me talking at them,” he admitted. “So sometimes I could just ask them questions about things that I did. And they had already worked it out on their own.”
Champion said there was a team building exercise on the first day. He said this exercise showed that police officers are human.
“And we're not robots or we're not the evil person lurking in the corner waiting to take people to jail," he said. "We're just people. We have dogs, we have cats. We eat McDonald's just like everybody else. And a lot of the kids, they really didn't have that interaction.”
The children’s eyes lit up when a special guest showed up.
K9 Officer Josh Strand introduced K9 Kilo.
“He's what's called a full-service dog," Strand said. "So dual purpose. So what he's been trained for is narcotics detection, building and article search, vehicle and handling protection, suspect apprehension, tracking, all types of things."
Strand announced that K9 Kilo is retiring this month.
K9 Kilo wasn’t the only visitor.
Rockford State Representative Maurice West stopped by to speak with the children.
“And I love what you guys are doing," he told them. "You know why? I'm glad that we had a conversation about protests. We talked about that right? We talked about what's happening in Rockford, right?”
West said things have to get better outside of law enforcement as well as inside.
“How many of us want to become a police officer?" he asked them. "That's how you can make things better within law enforcement. People like you becoming police officers. People who like you who learn -- how old are you?" he asked one student. "‘Fifteen.’" He asked another, "How old are you? ‘Eleven.’ You’re a tall 11."
"I get that a lot," said the student, named Aaron. He mentioned that this experience was great.
“I’m going to share it with my friends," Aaron said. "And if they need to talk to an officer they can.”
He said he wants to serve the public when he gets older by being a firefighter, a police officer and working in Emergency Medical Services.
Ronnie Scallon was there with her three young children. She said they are a Gold Star Family.
"So, their dad served in the military. And we're just used to this type of environment,” she explained. “There's not something like this that they can do on the military side.”
She said the academy is a great outlet for them. Her daughter, Patience, 10, said she enjoyed the police academy.
“I got to see a police car and police dogs," she said. "And I thought it was really cool and [a] good experience."
Hodges said it’s always important for police officers to interact with the youth, even in light of what’s going on with the community and police relations. She said it’s important for children to know that the police are there for them.
“We are here to get them through any situation," Hodges explained. "Whether it's a family situation, whether it's a bullying situation, a stalking situation that they know that we're the people they run to. The people they can trust and come to in the time of need and help.”
Scallon said this program is needed.
“I am so grateful that we were picked to get into it," she said, "because it teaches about the community, gets the kids used to people that serve, and are there for them. Because they were like, ‘Hey, if you see us on the street, talk to us.’”
She said that all parents should consider sending their children to something like this.
A graduation ceremony was held at the end of the training.
- Yvonne Boose is a 2020 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. It's a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms like WNIJ. You can learn more about Report for America at wnij.org.