‘Drop it. Drop it. Let me see your hands’ North Bergen’s Junior Police Academy broadens students’ perspectives

North Bergen hosted its first junior police academy this summer, with four one-week sessions in which children were put into real and simulated police situations.

Officer Joe Sitty, who has been a D.A.R.E. police officer for almost 13 years and has been on the North Bergen Police Department for 21 years, said that the children went last week to a Newark Bears baseball game and trained in a simulator at the Union Police Academy in Union, N.J. The simulator is a training device for real recruits, and replicates situations that a police officer could encounter.

Sitty said that it is not your average video game, since it requires judgments as to whether deadly force is necessary against a possible criminal.

About six to seven children can head into the simulator at a time. It has a large screen and operates on voice commands.

Sitty said he wants children to understand the seriousness of guns.

“We take it one step further,” he said. “Now you’re going to see when we’re justified in [shooting] or not, and understand that you know that it’s really not cool.”

He added, “That’s the furthest thing that a police officer wants to do. We want to work an eight-hour tour and protect and serve, and get back to our families. The last thing I want to do is to take someone’s life.”

‘It’s about real life’

During the school year, homeroom teachers chose students from the sixth and seventh grades who showed leadership skills or would benefit from the program.

Sitty said that some kids in the simulator excelled at making the right decisions and controlled possibly violent situations.

One girl had to deal with a drunk man leaving the vehicle of his car, said Sitty. After he got out of the vehicle, he began to wave a weapon in the air, but the cadet forcefully said “Drop it. Drop it. Let me see your hands. Drop it.”

Eventually the man dropped his weapon without the young girl ever pulling the trigger, which according to Sitty, showed really good judgment.

Mishel Figueroa, a soon to be seventh grader at Fulton School, said last week that she “loved” the academy.

Figueroa faced a situation in which people in a school were beating up a man. Four perpetrators ran away, but one who stayed behind took out a gun and started shooting.

“I wanted to shoot him, but he kept hiding behind the locker, so at the end I shot him in the shoulder, but it wasn’t lethal,” said Figueroa.

While Figueroa enjoyed going to her first baseball game in Newark, she said she also considered becoming a police officer because of the skills she was learning.

Classroom curriculum too

The Junior Police Academy largely exists because of a federal grant through G.R.E.A.T., or Gang Resistance Education and Training, which funds education during the school year. It requires a summer and parent component.

When Sitty recommended having a junior police academy, Mayor Nicholas Sacco and Police Chief William Galvin stood behind him.

The children also learn a curriculum in a classroom for part of the week. Sitty’s focus was on hands-on training.

For the last three weeks, cadets have gone on full tours of the North Bergen Police Headquarters, visiting Galvin’s office and seeing how the force operates.

Students have visited the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency in Newark and took a 90-minute tour of the Battleship New Jersey, including a four-dimensional jet fighter simulator.

Sitty brings in K-9 dogs and even sets up a motorcycle demonstration in the high school’s tennis court.

“The officers explained to the kids how they use their motorcycles as a defensve tool if they need to take cover if they are being shot upon,” said Sitty.

Isham Shah, a North Bergen High School student who is volunteering for his community and soon will be president of the junior student council, said that he’s learned a lot.

“I gained more of an understanding to what cops have to go through to protect us and serve the community,” said Shah.

Another volunteer, Chirag Shah, added, “And we didn’t have a program like this when we were kids, so we learned a lot.”

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