Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 34
Wednesday, August 24, 2011
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Kids Learn All About Law Enforcement At Sixth Season of Youth Police Academy

Anne Levin

The woman lay motionless in the street, just outside the blood-smeared, open door of her car. A bottle of water was on the ground, only a few feet from the dark red pool of blood surrounding her head. Yellow crime scene tape cordoned off the area, but a crowd of interested observers — 22 of them, to be exact — was inside the tape, craning their necks to get a better look at the gruesome tableau.

Convincing as it looked, this scene taking place outside the Princeton Township Police Department headquarters this past Monday wasn’t real. The “corpse” was played by Officer Jenn Lacovara. The onlookers were members of the Police Department’s Youth Police Academy, an annual, one-week camp that gives kids entering sixth, seventh, or eighth grade an inside look at local law enforcement.

This is the sixth year for the program, which covers everything from accident investigations to DWI goggles and firearm safety. The participants were ending this first day of the session with a new activity, called The CSI Game, which the officers found on line and purchased for this year’s session.

“Today was something we’d never done before, and it was a big hit,” said Detective Ben Gering, who runs the program. “The kids were really interested and enthusiastic.”

In the game’s scenario, the woman owed the assailant money. When he couldn’t collect it, he killed her, leaving several clues behind. Mr. Gering and his fellow officers divided the kids into seven groups of three or four. They visited the morgue, the DNA lab, and the trace evidence, fingerprint, and firearms labs to try and figure out who had committed the makeshift murder (it was Mr. Gering).

Not all of the activities of the week involve such grisly subject matter. There is marching and drilling, a demonstration of K9 skills by the Robbinsville Police Department, an aviation class, information about the fire department, Princeton First Aid and Rescue, even a helicopter landing. It all ends on Friday with a pizza party and a graduation ceremony, to which parents are invited.

“We’re trying to give kids a first-hand knowledge of what it is to be a police officer, and specifically to be a police officer in this town,” Mr. Gering said. “We’re clearing up some of the mystery. Why do police pull cars over? Why do they search the way they do? Some of the kids are actually interested in being in law enforcement, but I think most of them are just curious and want to see what goes on inside.”

Watching the CSI Game on Monday were a few veterans of the program, distinguishable from the younger participants by their height and their black tee-shirts (the young ones wore gray Princeton Township Police Department shirts). These alumni, who act as counselors, were on hand to help out.

“I did this for three years and now I’m staff,” said Jacob Rist, 14. “I really liked it because it was different every year. It was good to learn what the police’s function is in the township. One of the things I learned is that there’s a lot of paperwork involved. I didn’t realize that.”

Fellow counselor Alex Rosen, also 14, was a participant last year. “It made me look at the role of the police differently,” he said. “It’s a hard job, but it’s rewarding. And it’s interesting to see how it really works.”

The camp is geared to a specific age group for a reason. “Over the years we’ve found that the kids going into sixth, seventh, or eighth grade were the ones who enjoyed it most and got the most out of it,” said Mr. Gering. “We’ve tried it with kids a bit older and a bit younger, and this age works best. These guys who come back to be counselors are a huge help. And I get fulfillment out of the fact that they want to come back and keep the program going.”

Most of the officers taking part in the program were volunteering their time. “Everyone has a specialty,” said Mr. Gering. “They represent detectives, traffic, patrol, and other different aspects of the job, and they bring it all to the table.”

One of the goals of the program is to create a stronger bond between police officers and young people in the community. If the young veterans are any indication, the goals have been reached. “It’s really cool to recognize and know some of the officers who I met in the program,” said Jacob.

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