On a rainy afternoon near the rear entrance of Harrington Middle School, a Mt. Laurel police car flashes its lights as it pulls behind a blue Jeep Wrangler.
The two vehicles pull right up to the curb near the entrance to the school auditorium. After stopping the vehicle, Mt. Laurel police officer Kyle Gardner steps out to approach the Jeep. But he’s not alone.
Behind him are three recruits from Mt. Laurel’s Junior Police Academy Class No. 4. The recruits walk alongside Gardner as they approach the Jeep.
This is clearly not an ordinary traffic stop. It is instead one of the many hands-on demonstrations Mt. Laurel Junior Police Academy’s class participates in during the week-long program.
The Mt. Laurel Junior Police Academy returned for its fourth year this week. This year’s class of rising seventh- and eighth-graders participated in numerous activities at Harrington Middle School and got a chance to go on trip to the police station, fire department, EMS station and more.
School resource officers Lester Hann and David Sweely were two of the officers who took the lead on this year’s program. Hann has been involved with the program since it started in 2016 and has seen more kids want to get involved with each passing year.
“Interest has grown,” Hann said. “We accept a certain amount of candidates each year. Interest has grown and each year we try to improve the blocks of instruction that we give to the kids.”
The blocks of instruction go through everything about being a police officer, from motor vehicle stops and an emergency vehicle operations course to firing a simulation handgun at a firing range. Each day, recruits also participate in physical training and military drills just an officer would do when going through a police academy. Visits to all of the township’s first responder agencies are also a critical part of the course.
“We try to keep all of the public service entities involved as best we can, because a lot of times we do intermingle and we work closely with each other,” Hann said.
Many of the courses and demonstrations are the same from year-to-year, but new parts of the program are added as police work changes. Recruits got a chance to participate in a new course on Wednesday as Gardner gave a short presentation on police body-worn cameras.
“For me, this is an important part of my everyday policing because this is something I can look back on,” Gardner said about the cameras. “It also protects me. I know I conduct myself in a professional manner every time I’m with the public and this just reaffirms that.”
“Most of the things we do are steadfast to our career field itself, “Hann added. “(Body-worn cameras) are relatively new to our career field so that’s why we incorporated it into our instruction.”
The police department’s public information officer, Gardner was also very involved in this year’s Junior Police Academy and got a chance to see in-depth how the recruits got to build bonds with the officers.
“It allows them to appreciate what we do,” Gardner said of the academy. “It gives them an oversight as to how we conduct ourselves and what our job entails. And they get to meet some of the officers.”
Building relationships is also an important part of the academy for Hann and Sweely. As school resource officers, both of them work around kids throughout the school year. Hann spends a lot of his time at Harrington Middle School and will see many of the recruits from the Junior Police Academy on a regular basis when school re-opens in September.
“They get more comfortable with the officers that come out and are here regularly,” Hann said of the recruits. “Myself and Dave are assigned to the school district, so they see us all the time.”
“One of the goals of the program here is to enhance community relations,” Hann later added. “Through the program, we can do that.”