From the looks of things, a police agency made up of very young officers is having an exceptionally busy day.
Outside, car stops are in progress with a decommissioned police vehicle, lights blazing. Someone who seems to be a uniformed officer is administering a field sobriety test. Periodically, more uniforms come out to observe or even switch places with the test administrator.
But this is not the station house downtown. It is not a police academy.
It is the Northland Career Center in Platte City. All the people in uniforms are high school students, learning from a law enforcement studies course that is one of the oldest and best in Missouri.
Inside the metal-sided building is a hive of activity. In one corner, students practice lifting fingerprints off spoons, bottles and feathers. Other rooms are set up with faux crime scenes where students measure, sketch and document evidence.
In a darkened room, students line up for laser target practice before a screen that shows targets and times the shooters. It will even play out realistic shooter scenarios, if the proper computer buttons are pushed. Behind the shooters, demonstrations are given of the proper way to restrain a suspect.
It’s just another class day in the Law Enforcement/Crime Scene Investigation program — a course of study that has led the state in training for future crime fighters practically since its inception in 2007.
The numbers tell the story. Of the 475 who have gone through the program, 27 went on to become police officers, 34 private security officers, four crime lab techs, three dispatchers, four corrections officers and more than 100 have served in the military. Two went on to practice law, and two went into social work.
But it isn’t only about job prospects. Students say the hands-on program is fun and builds a sense of camaraderie they don’t get in their high school core.
“You get more out of it than in your home school classes,” said Marena Draskovich, a senior at Winnetonka High School, referring to the high schools that are sending students to the program. “It’s probably the most fun I’ve ever had in high school.”
The Northland Career Center offers training in law enforcement as well as career areas like culinary arts, construction technology and information technology to students in 12 high schools in seven districts. Students spend a half day at their regular high schools and a half day in instructor Darrick Bruns’ class. The law enforcement and crime scene investigation program (there is no firefighting component) is offered for two years to juniors and seniors.
Police and firefighting courses in high school have become popular in recent years. Two school districts in Johnson County are getting a curriculum underway this year and next, partly at the request of police and sheriff’s offices that are having trouble filling vacancies. Missouri schools are also involved, with 16 such programs started since 2007.
The Northland Career Center program is one of the oldest in the state, having started in 2007, said Bruns. It was the fourth one started in the state, behind two that have been running in St. Louis since the 1970s and one that was started in Sikeston in 2006.
The law enforcement program got its start with a survey asking students what types of programs they’d like to see at the career center. Law enforcement came in second, behind beauty school, Bruns said.
District officials opted for the crime-fighting classes. Bruns, retired from 21 years in the Cameron Police Department and already interested in becoming a history teacher, was given the job of teaching it.
But there was one hitch. No standardized curriculum existed for police skills courses for high school. Districts were on their own as to what and how they’d teach.
“They did whatever they wanted to do,” Bruns said. “There was no direction. It was like driving blindfolded into the dark night on a rocky road.”
So Bruns built the technical standards that are the foundation of the program. The standards and Bruns’ expertise made the program a draw with high schools in the area. That popularity has made it a template for other schools in the state, and Bruns now instructs new Missouri teachers each summer on how to run the course.
Enrollment is always full, with 54 students starting each year, Bruns said. And it’s competitive to get in.
With interest high in the course, getting in is not a given. Interested sophomores and juniors spend several days shadowing others in the class, ending with an interview, and they are scored on how well they did. Candidates also have to have a good home school attendance record, grades at a C average or above and only minor, if any, disciplinary referrals.
Once they’re in, the experience is as close to a working police department as possible for high school students, Bruns said.
“Everything is set up as a working police environment. Everything but actually going and being out in the real world,” he said.
Students wear dark blue, policelike uniforms, which they change into and out of in the locker rooms at the career center. They have patches and ranks, which they have to interview for. There are regular squad meetings to discuss upcoming tasks, just like at the station house.
And the classroom work is as real as it can get. Northland students go on parade detail, barricading streets and watching for small children during homecomings of the sending schools. They work the parking for high school football games, spend two days at the Kansas City (Mo.) Police Academy, and take their detecting skills on the road to grade school and middle school science and math classes.
Seniors get a shooting day at Parma Woods Shooting Range in Parkville. And there’s a mace day, where volunteers (with parents’ permission) can find out what it’s like to be pepper-sprayed.
All that experience and working partnerships with area law enforcement agencies has resulted in a lot of hires for students and graduates of the program. Worlds of Fun, for example, regularly hires them for seasonal security work. And the program has a working relationship with Kansas City police and the Missouri Highway Patrol, among others.
“What he has done with those kids through the years has been amazing,” said Lt. D.J. Hedrick, of the Missouri Highway Patrol’s St. Joseph post, regarding Bruns.
Training like that wasn’t available when Hedrick was in high school, though he would have liked it to have been, he said.
The program gives valuable real-life experience, like how to handle an interview board and how to deal with people, he said. “So if they go to the academy, they will be well prepared for what the academy is going to teach them.”
Hedrick said the program benefits law enforcement agencies because it gets the career choice in front of students sooner. The applicant pool for officers has been shrinking, he said. In the 1990s, there were usually 5,000 applicants for 40 positions, but now there are fewer than 1,000 applicants.
Sgt. Collin Stosberg, public information officer for the Highway Patrol in Lee’s Summit, agrees.
“The group is a standard among the vocational-type programs, especially the (crime scene investigation) and law enforcement,” he said. “It sets the standard top to bottom.”
Programs like the career center’s are helpful in giving potential recruits better training in the real world, he said. Agencies everywhere are trying to find ways of recruiting young people from all backgrounds, and introducing the information at an earlier age may help in that effort, he said.
While the technical skills of documenting a crime scene or questioning a suspicious loiterer are important, it’s the people skills and general knowledge about policing that are most mentioned by current and former students alike.
Isaac Ray, a 2014 graduate of the program, was always interested in law enforcement because he wanted to help people, he said. Now he’s a dispatcher for the Platte County Sheriff’s Office who has been sponsored to attend an academy at Missouri Western State University. Eventually, he hopes to become a sheriff’s deputy.
Ray credited his experience in the class and on security detail at Worlds of Fun with giving him the advantage of a clearer understanding of police work. “It’s not just the career but more like the personal skills,” he said. “It’s talking to a group, adapting to different types of people.”
Bianca Byrd, of Kansas City North, plans to study law after finishing up a bachelor’s degree at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. The class, which she completed in 2010, helped her clarify her own career goals, as well as teach her how to hold her own and network in the adult world, she said.
“It definitely taught the fundamentals of respect and integrity, of being on time, hand-shaking, and respect,” she said.
Abby Leu, a recent graduate now studying human services at Maple Woods branch of Metropolitan Community College, said the class has given her important life skills on leadership and how to connect with people. “I’m going to have these skills the rest of my life,” she said.
Current students say the class is like a family. “We’ve only known each other for one or two years, but you feel like you can trust them more than anyone in your home schools you’ve known for 13 years,” said David Montague, a senior from Staley High School.
Jenna Abbott, a senior from Liberty, agreed. “I look forward to coming to this class every single day,” she said.
Students also mention the confidence they gained in making presentations and demonstrations at competitions put on by SkillsUSA, a technical and career student organization.
It’s a SkillsUSA state competition that students were practicing for on a recent Friday afternoon. Plaques from the center’s winnings — and there have been a lot of them — line the wall near the ceiling of the classroom.
The center has been SkillsUSA state champion seven of the past nine years in crime scene investigations and every year of the past nine in criminal justice. Bruns attributes that to the students’ dedication.
“When I’m asked why the program is so successful, it has to do with the loyalty and dedication of the students themselves,” he explained. It’s not at all unusual for the kids to come in on Saturdays or days off from school to practice their crime scene and fingerprinting skills, he said.
“I believe that’s what separates us from other schools when it comes to competition,” Bruns said.
Even the increased scrutiny and criticism of police use of force has not deflated the enthusiasm for the course, he said. The issue of discrimination is discussed, and incidents such as the shooting of Michael Brown two years ago in Ferguson have been reviewed, he said.
“As long as you have young men and women who are human-service oriented, caring and compassionate, you will always have them show up wanting to be police officers, EMTs and firefighters.”