ROCKINGHAM — Richie Watts is considering a career in law enforcement.
That’s why the 16-year-old said he signed up for his second year at the Rockingham Police Department’s Junior Police Academy.
“It’s a good way to kinda let the younger generation know how law enforcement works,” he said.
And that’s part of the goal, according to Police Chief Billy Kelly.
Kelly said the academy “gives them a chance early on to decide” if they want to pursue a law enforcement career.
The purpose of the week-long program — which has been running about 8 years — is “to allow students to interact with officers and learn what we do on a daily basis,” Kelly said, “to see that officers are human.”
“Often what children see is an officer…who pulls their parents for a traffic offense,” he said. “Here they get to interact with them on a positive note…talk with them in a way they normally wouldn’t.”
Kelly said while growing up, he didn’t talk to police officers because he didn’t know them.
“I hope (the kids) will feel comfortable talking to law enforcement,” he said.
He said he also hopes the program will help keep participants out of trouble.
Out of 55 students who were registered for the free camp, Kelly said 51 showed up.
“It’s gotten bigger,” he said, “especially the past two years.”
Kelly said the department had to stop taking applications — which were sent to all the junior high schools in Richmond County — because the academy had already reached capacity. About 15 students, including Watts, returned for their second year.
Before lunch Thursday, students got a glimpse into the special weapons and tactics team.
SWAT team leader Officer Dustin Johnson and Detective Ray Morton brought in ballistic shields and battering rams, gas masks and helmets, allowing students to see just how heavy some of the heavy-duty equipment is.
Kids also got to see the War Wagon II, the RPD’s mobile command unit. Johnson said the converted ambulance also serves for SWAT members to take a break if they’ve pulled back during a standoff or raid.
“Sometimes it’s better to back off a situation,” he said.
Johnson told students that it takes more than formal education to be a police officer, with officers having to take additional field training. He said some officers have more than 100 hours in training.
“Being a police officer is like being a child growing up,” he said. “The more you go through law enforcement, the more you learn.”
J’Niya Covington said her favorite part of the week so far was the fake crime scene investigation on Tuesday.
“I got to find evidence for the crime scene,” said the first-year student. “I liked it, I got to see what they use.”
But that wasn’t all she liked.
“I really like the food,” she said. “It’s better than camps I usually go to.”
The lunches for the week were donated by Hardee’s, Domino’s Pizza, McDonald’s and Mi Casita’s. Soft drinks were also donated. The hot dogs and chips for Friday’s planned cookout will be provided by the police department.
Following lunch, Kelly — preparing students for the next lineup of speakers — explained that police officers, sheriff’s deputies, state troopers and State Bureau of Investigation agents don’t all have the same responsibilities.
“We all have the same goal,” he said, “but we have different duties.”
Rodney Tucker, Hamlet’s interim police chief, stopped by to tell kids about his department and the different jobs within it.
He also answered a variety of questions, including whether he had ever shot anyone. He said he hasn’t, and added that he’s only drawn his weapon once in his entire career.
When asked about the worst case he’s worked, Tucker said it involved the homicide of a 2-year-old. He said he had two young children at the time.
Tucker said he looks for individuals with high morals and high character and a clean record when hiring for the department.
He also encouraged students to further their learning.
“Go ahead and get your education while you’re young,” he said. “Get a college education.”
STATE LAW SURPRISES
Students also got a pop quiz from Chevonne Wallace and Kennedy Gates, prosecutors with the Richmond County District Attorney’s Office.
The six-question test asked students to choose between several crimes and list which carried the heaviest penalty. Some the correct answers came as a surprise.
Students learned that it was a felony to steal pine straw from your neighbor’s yard; a greater crime than stealing a car worth $800.
Another question — regarding one individual making threats of violence and the threatened initiating a pre-emptive strike — showed that communicating threats is a more severe charge than simple assault.
Other speakers for the day included Richmond County Sheriff James Clemmons and representatives from the N.C. Highway Patrol and SBI.
Thursday’s activities include a trip to the airport to see a helicopter landing, an introduction to illegal drug enforcement, traffic enforcement and a K-9 search and recovery demonstration.
On Friday, weather permitting, students will head to the firing range and participate in a physical training challenge, concluding with a cookout and swimming at Browder Park.
Earlier in the week, students took tours of the police department, courthouse and jail.
Kelly said students will receive their academy certificates at the National Night Out event Aug. 5.
Reach reporter William R. Toler at 910-817-2675.