As nearly 30 kids learned last week at the Junior Law Enforcement Academy, it takes a village to keep Dawson County safe.
For the 21st year, the Dawson County Sheriff’s Office hosted the annual academy for kids to give them a behind-the-scenes look at what goes in to protecting the county. From traffic stops to K9 units to collaborative efforts with state agencies, the junior cadets got the full hands-on experience June 4-8.
“We’ve not had one want to go home, not had one that didn’t want to participate in something,” said Lt. Shane Henson. “It’s usually you see them fighting over who gets to go first. And the kids have gotten along really well. They’ve not argued with one another. This has been one of the best (groups) we’ve had.”
The community came out in full support, with Dawson County Junior High School opening up its facilities to the sheriff’s office along with Lanier Technical College allowing the officers to use their parking lot to conduct demonstrations. Bojangles, J&S Kitchen and Chick-fil-A showed their support by providing meals for the cadets and instructors.
“The wonderful thing about (the JLEA) is it builds those relationships and we’re fortunate in Dawson County to have enjoyed a good relationship with our community,” said Sheriff Jeff Johnson.
Also aiding the DCSO were several state agencies that came out to give demonstrations and talk with the cadets.
On the first day of the academy, the kids watched in amazement as a large Georgia State Patrol helicopter landed in the middle of the DCJHS football field. They also had a visit from a Georgia Bureau of Investigation bomb squad, who taught the cadets how they use robots to diffuse bombs.
New to this year’s camp, Georgia Department of Natural Resources brought a patrol boat and landed one of their three helicopters at the school Friday morning.
The JLEA saw more interaction with the community and more participation from outside agencies this year than in past years, according to Johnson.
And those agencies helped to show the cadets that there is more to law enforcement than just policing, and that there are many specialties inside the profession.
“Everybody’s got their area and that’s what’s neat about law enforcement in general is that some people are more inclined to be traffic oriented, some people are inclined to work with dogs… it’s a broad enough of a profession where you can specialize in certain areas,” Johnson said.
Kids had a difficult time pinpointing their favorite part about the week. It was especially hard for 10-year-old Elizabeth Chameli, who couldn’t decide if shooting paintball guns, driving golf carts during defensive driving drills or participating in the crime scene drill was her favorite. She also said she learned an important lesson from the officers.
“I learned that you don’t have to shoot them right away,” she said about interacting with potential dangerous subjects. “That’s the last thing you do. First you have to talk about it and you have to try to convince them that you don’t want to shoot them.”
A second-time cadet, 11-year-old David Santander said “just about everything” was his favorite part of the academy and he’s already looking forward to coming back next year.
And 11-year-old Tristan Austin knew exactly what his favorite experience was: watching the K9 demonstrations.
For the officers instructing the camp, the week was about connecting with the kids in the community and having fun.
“Getting to work with the kids and getting them to know who we are and seeing that we have a fun side too,” said Sgt. Stephen Swofford about his favorite part of the week.
Swofford has been involved with the JLEA since the beginning and enjoys building rapport with the community through the fun summertime academy.
Nearly everyone in the sheriff’s office wanted in on the action last week, either by dropping by to say hello or volunteering to help the instructors.
“It gives them a chance to learn about us on a personal level,” Johnson said. “I think it builds trust. And who knows, we may just see one of these young adults in law enforcement one day.”
The academy ended with a bang Friday as the cadets excitedly watched the Dawson County SWAT team detonate flash bombs and conduct a vehicle assault drill. Kids clapped and cheered “Again! Again!” and could hardly control their excitement when SWAT Commander Matt Hester set up for a second demonstration.
The cadets ended their week with the officers with a special swearing in ceremony, where Johnson swore in each cadet as an honorary member of the sheriff’s office.