Frederick Police Chief Ed Hargis fixed a stern expression on the group of teens in the department’s youth academy Thursday morning, his grim demeanor belied by the hint of a smile as he demanded a more enthusiastic greeting.

“Aw, come on, you’re at the police academy,” Hargis said, his voice booming. “That’s not going to cut it! I said, ‘good morning!’”

What was initially a halfhearted mumble came back as a slightly more convincing reply, but it was clear the tactic Hargis has used in previous years to rev up younger academy participants wouldn’t work on this older, more aloof group of high school students.

Rather than forcing the issue, Hargis changed tactics, turning to Michele Bowman, one of the academy’s organizers.

“Oh, I can see this group is going to be doing a lot of pushups today,” Hargis said with a wicked grin.

This year was the first time the department included a class for 14- to 17-year-olds in the youth academy, which previously cut off attendees at 13 years old. Instead, the training facility opened its doors to three groups of younger children between 7 and 13 on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, then held a fourth session for the older teens Thursday. Aside from including a larger age group in the program, the department’s decision had another goal: recruitment.

After introductions and question-and-answer periods with the chief and Frederick County State’s Attorney Charlie Smith, Officer Margery Lee took her turn before the group, dimming the lights for a quick, action-packed video featuring clips from police officer training. As soon as the lights were back on, Lee told the teens about Explorers Post 153, the program that she runs designed to help guide teens from 14 years old into their early 20s who are contemplating careers in law enforcement.

Now that the youth academy has spots for teens in the eligible age range for the Explorers, Lee is looking forward to capitalizing on the crossover.

“What I’m hoping is that the youngest part of the youth academy, the 7- and 13-year-olds, will come back for this older group and then that might in turn lead to more interest in joining the Explorers program,” Lee said.

Another advantage of working with older youth was that it gave the officers running the program the ability to run a more exciting, hands-on experience. In addition to the usual activities, such as a police dog demonstration and a fingerprinting class, a tactical officer also fired a “flashbang” distraction round for the teens and popped a smoke grenade. Then, after running the group through a defensive tactics activity where they could practice baton strikes and sparring techniques on training bags, the teens gathered outside to take part in traffic stop scenarios.

Before long, even the most cautious of the youth were smiling and eagerly reaching for the gadgets being passed around by Sgt. Reed Preece, who showed off some of the heavy firepower used by the department’s Special Response Team.

As Preece helped another teen into a vest, 15-year-old Tuscarora High School student Andrew Saponara was inspecting a softball-sized black orb with several camera lenses embedded in evenly spaced ports, a unique camera the tactical team can throw or roll into a room to gather intelligence.

“My parents told me about [the youth academy] and asked me if I wanted to sign up and I’ve always had an interest,” Saponara said. “My dad is a police officer, he works at the Pentagon, so it’s been interesting just to see what they do on a daily basis and see if it’s something I’d be interested in.”

While many children of law enforcement officers do follow their parents into the profession, not everyone who signed up for Thursday’s session was set on earning a badge. For 15-year-old Baby Cornish, her early goal of joining a police department changed, but her interest in and admiration for the job remains.

“No one in my family was involved in law enforcement, but I’ve always had a tremendous amount of respect for the profession and that was what I was originally interested in doing,” Cornish said as she watched two other academy participants learn how to properly secure someone in handcuffs. “I wanted to prove that I could do the job and that it’s possible to do this job and still be a good person, because in today’s political climate, a lot of people have a negative perception of the police.”

Ultimately, Cornish decided she would rather work outside of law enforcement, but adjacent to the profession, saying she would be interested in pursuing a career in journalism where she can research, write about and interact with different aspects of the law and law enforcement.

Still, Cornish said she might take the next step and look into signing up for the Explorers post, if only to learn more about law enforcement. At the end of the day, that is the ultimate goal of the program.

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Jeremy Arias is the Frederick city and government reporter for The Frederick News-Post.

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