South Portland cop camp gives kids an inside look at police work

South Portland Police Officer Jeff Warren leads a game of capture the flag with Junior Police Academy campers July 9 at the Community Center. Krysteana Scribner / The Forecaster

SOUTH PORTLAND — A group of 30 day campers, both delighted and concerned, reacted in energetic shouts and screams at the Community Center July 9 as Zak the police dog took a bite of Police Officer Ezekiel Collins.

“I’m just going to walk him in, get him worked up, and feed him on the arm,” Officer Shane Stevenson said as Zak made a quick lunge and latched onto the protective bite suit Collins wore.

South Portland Police Officer Shane Stevenson, right, leads K-9 Zak in a demonstration for campers at the Junior Police Academy Camp in South Portland on July 9. Officer Ezekiel Collins, wearing the bite suit, is Zak’s target. Krysteana Scribner / The Forecaster

The demonstration was one of several acivities the campers enjoyed this week as part of the Junior Police Academy Camp, led by officers from the South Portland Police Department.

Now in its fourth year, the week-long camp for sixth, seventh and eighth graders gives kids an inside look at a career in public safety.

In addition to learning from the K-9 unit, campers also worked with the department’s bomb squad, the SWAT team and members of the U.S. Coast Guard.

“We try to capitalize on every specialty we have,” Stevenson said. “We want to touch on everything, so people can see what we do day in and day out, and learn what police work involves.”

He said 7-year-old Zak, who has been in the K-9 unit for more than five years, has been a phenomenal police dog with a great track record. Zak is great with kids, he said, which is always beneficial in demonstrations like the one put on for campers Tuesday.

J-PAC, as the camp is called, was launched in July 2016 as part of an effort to educate the community about police work and create more summer programs for kids in the city.

Through activities such as self-defense, drug resistance education, mock investigations, dive team demonstrations and other activities, students learn the importance of the department’s guiding values: integrity, respect, service, fairness and leadership.

Officer Erin Curry said the camp also lets kids get acquainted with officers personally – an important step to forming strong bonds with the community. She said active-duty members of the U.S. Army also lead marches and conduct physical fitness exercises with campers.

“We want them to take what they learn and use it is a more dynamic situation where they have to remember it all at once and have competitiveness at the same time,” said Officer Jeff Warren. “That’s where activities like the relay race come in – we apply what we learned in self-defense and our physical fitness training with the Army, so they can work together.”

Olivia Knudsen, who is 13 and a first-time camper, said she enjoyed the presentation Stevenson gave about the K-9 unit.

“It’s important to understand why there are officers and how they do their job,” Knudsen said. “I came here because one of the things I want to do when I grow up is either be a police officer or a game warden, so I figured why not learn about it now.”

Twelve-year-old Daniel Cook, who has been attending J-PAC since 2017, said his favorite camp experience was conducted by the SWAT team members, who threw down a stun grenade to demonstrate how they are used during hostage rescue and high-risk situations.

“If you want to be a police officer or be in the military, you get to learn self-defense, what game wardens do, what K-9 units do … you get to see so much,” Cook said. “I just come here for fun, and the opportunity is very cool.”

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