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Teens learn about police work Allison K. Sampite | Sat, May 14 2011 12:00 PM

Bonita Vista High School junior Charles Curtis said he's always had an interest in serving the community and understanding law.

He said his inspiration comes from his grandfather, who served 32 years as a sheriff in San Diego County.

For the last two months, he's attended a juvenile academy put on by the Chula Vista Police Department. "I've always been fascinated with the job of a patrol officer," he said.

The police department is holding it's seventh annual Juvenile Police Academy through May 18. Curtis said he applied because he wanted to get a better idea of what officers face on a daily basis. "I feel like I have a higher view of police than most people my age," he said.

After graduating high school and attending college, Curtis said he wants to enlist in the Marine Corps and become an officer.

The 10-week course offers teenagers ranging in age from 13 to 18 insight through courses including bullying, street racing, the crime lab, pursuit driving, Internet safety, defensive tactics, patrol role play scenarios and gang suppression.

Chula Vista Police Community Relations Specialist Angela Gaines coordinates the efforts for the police department and 38 teens.

Members from Chula Vista Police Department's elite units such as the gang suppression unit, narcotics enforcement team and others gave demonstrations during their classes in their areas of expertise.

"This is an example of law enforcement reaching out to youth for police insight," Gaines said.

Some 18 officers volunteer their time to each teach a course.

Agent Elliot Shaffer, a detective in the police department, was in charge of creating role-play scenarios for the teens. Scenarios engaged students in real-life situations involving domestic calls, transients and conflict resolution.

Shaun Myers is an officer who volunteered to help act out the scenes. "It's important for teens to understand what it means to be a cop to get a sense of what happens in the field versus what they see on TV," he said.

Some of the frequent misconceptions that many teenagers have about police officers is that they often use their taser guns on people, Myers said. He also said during role-play scenarios that they want to handcuff everyone.

Kelsey Ferko is a sophomore at Bonita Vista High whose father is an officer at the police department. "I was looking for a fun program to see more of what my father does and to see if it interests me," she said. "The academy is helpful because it opens up your eyes... For example, with bullying you always see it happening, but just don't recognize it."

This is the first year the topic of bullying was added to the academy curriculum.

"We wanted to add it because we know it's something that's happening in our schools and our community and that it's a real issue for kids and teenagers," said public safety analyst Melanie Culuko.

Culuko said the interaction helps teens develop a better understanding of one another and helps break stereotypes. She said even if someone is not the target of a bully, they should still have a role to protect someone who is being bullied. "The more we talk about it, the more we're in a position to intervene appropriately," she said.

During the academy, Culuko empowered the participants to be a catalyst for change by not perpetuating rumors or gossip, as well as surrounding themselves with positive people who make the right choices.

Gaines said that teenagers have a different perspective of police and law enforcement. "This program helps make the perception positive, especially if it's already negative," she said. "It's an opportunity for those who are straddling the line between going down the wrong path and deciding to make better choices."

According to Gaines, some 25 percent of teens who attend the academy plan to have a career in law enforcement.

Academy applicant requirements include that the participants be 13 to 18 years of age, live or go to school in Chula Vista and have some kind of involvement with the community.

Each year evaluations are conducted and adjustments are made based off the popularity or dislike of the classes, Gaines said.

"For example, Internet safety was lengthened to three hours because it's timely, relevant and important," she said.

The 10-week course began March 2 and the graduation ceremony will be held at the Chula Vista City Council chambers Wednesday, May 18, at 5:30 p.m.

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