In the third year of the program, there is no shortage of local youth signing up for the Benton Police Department's Junior Police Academy, and the respect gained between officer and citizen is mutual.
"This is my third year to go through (the program)," said Jenny Bowen, a 2012 Benton High School graduate. "When I got in it my sophomore year, I did it because I knew (School Resource Officers) Quinton Jackson and Joey Bedsole, but I kept coming back because they were offering it, It's something you can't do all the time and it's free. It has never been boring. I've enjoyed all three years."
This year nine teenagers spent two weeks with a few Benton police officers. The got to spend time in police cruisers while officers performed everything from traffic stops to various crime responses in what is dubbed a ride-along. They spent a Saturday holding and shooting various guns at a safe firing range. The raced through an obstacle course; watched a helicopter land and met with the pilot; met SWAT team members; conducted mock traffic stops and learned how officers work the scene of a traffic accident; rode personal electric transportation machines called Segways; put on "drunk goggles" and performed field sobriety tests; met and watched K-9 officers in action; learned the process of fingerprinting; and much more.
A couple of participants who are 18-years-old even volunteered to be Tased. It was just for three seconds, but it made an impact they said they'll never forget.
"I liked all of (Junior Police Academy). I liked riding the Segway and stuff, but I did get Tased. Oh, it hurt. It hurt so bad," Erin Jackson said with a laugh. "You couldn't move. I screamed."
Bowen, who on a video replay didn't fall to the ground and didn't make a sound while being Tased, added, "Even though I had been doing this (program) for three years, this was my first year to get Tased. It was very painful. I'm glad that I did it, though, just so I can say that I got Tased. But it did hurt — a lot."
The students also were able to test several of their own abilities, to see if they would be a suitable candidate to someday be a police officer. They learned defensive tactics that officers sometimes have to use in the event a Taser doesn't subdue a suspect or for some reason they can't use a Taser at all. And they didn't just learn by watching. Some of the teens got to get out on a mat and learn from firsthand experience.
"I liked doing the obstacle course. It was fun," Hannah Baker said. "We jumped over a 5-foot wall, flipped over a 165-pound dummy and other stuff. And you run a lot. It wasn't easy, but I liked it."
They also learned how officers keep track of sex offenders and other programs inside the Criminal Investigation Department, including how to take fingerprints and how they can find fingerprints in machines such as the "glue machine." They also learned that it is important for officers to use their own fingerprints at times.
"My favorite part was probably the ride-along (with an officer while on patrol)," Kait Hill said. "I rode along for about three hours. I got to see a few people arrested and a few people pulled over, and then just a lot of background of the city. It was cool. It was interesting to see things from an officer's point of view. I learned that they have to leave their fingerprints on a car just in case something (bad) happens."
Jamie Freeze added, "The ride-along was definitely the best part. It was an experience. It was an insight just being around officers and you learn a lot."
Noah Griffith also added, "On the ride-along you get to see what all the police officers do throughout the day and that was really cool. I definitely respect (officers) a lot more because I didn't know they do all this dangerous stuff. During traffic stops, you don't even know who these people are or what they are capable of doing. It can be pretty scary — like we are sitting the car and you always have to look at the people's hands, like every five seconds or so to make sure they are not doing anything (bad)."
Many of the participants, such as Griffith, said they are even thinking about someday becoming an officer. But if nothing else, they all said they learned something valuable from the class and they recommend it to others.
""There was an announcement at (Benton High School) to sign up for the Junior Police Academy and I like different experiences, so I signed up," Ben Fortin said. "It was pretty fun and my favorite day was (gun) range day. And during the ride-along, I learned that there are so many different calls that can come in at any time. You can have something as simple as pulling someone over for not having a license (plate) and the next thing there is some dude in shed with weapons and stuff."
Freeze even won a certificate, a leather-bound notebook imprinted with the words "Benton Police Academy," a flashlight, a special coin, and also acquired a sense of pride as he took his cardboard cutout that he previously shot out during a graduation ceremony. Though he has experience with shooting guns in the past, there were some new tips that he learned through the program.
"You have to really focus on technique and stance and everything, because a lot of what it is, is a mind thing, so you have to really focus. I learned a lot of little tips that I didn't know before that really helped," he said.
Benton Police Chief Kirk Lane said during the graduation ceremony, "I think it was a lot of fun and I am glad you all got to see a little peek into what we do every day here at the police department. We are real proud of this group and knowing what you have learned can be put back into the community. We appreciate it if you tell others what we do here as well, because it really means a lot to us to know how you feel, what you think about us."
The remarks from the 2012 graduates of the Junior Police Academy were all praiseworthy and the word "fun" was heard often. Bowen said though she had been through the program the previous two years, she still learned something new this year.
"You get to go out and see what all (officers) do and the program is a little bit different each year. You do the same activities, but sometimes they are a little different (than previously)," she said.
Fortin added, "I actually learned that most officers are pretty nice, and they are not out to get people."
The 2012 participants were: Jenny Bowen, Ben Fortin, Hannah Baker, Corey Green, Joshua Stenger, Noah Griffith, Erin Jackson, Kait Hill and Jamie Freeze.
For more information about the Benton Junior Police Academy or the adult version of the class — Citizens Police Academy — call the Benton Police Department at 776-5948.