Christopher Plunkett grew up hearing ‘never trust the cops.'
Raised in a rough neighborhood in The Village, Plunkett, 17, said he has seen his fair share of crime. He decided to apply to this summer's Oklahoma City Student Police Academy so he could learn about law enforcement from an inside perspective.
“I've always been around bad things, gangs,” Plunkett said. “I've always been around that area, and I wanted to try and be something more than what was given to me as a kid, and this just sounded like a great opportunity to do that.”
Plunkett is one of 24 teens participating in the Oklahoma City Police Department's weeklong Student Police Academy.
The program gives area students ages 15 to 18 a behind-the-scenes look at law enforcement.
Teens are selected based on recommendations from teachers, coaches and community leaders.
With almost 60 applicants, this week's camp generated the most interest since it began five years ago, said Sgt. Tomas Daugherty.
Students hear from guest speakers on the police force, tour investigation labs and examine a simulated crime scene.
“It's not what you think it is,” Plunkett said. “I thought it was going to be a bunch of lectures, but it's very hands-on. I didn't expect that.”
They also visit the shooting range and watch demonstrations from the canine unit, the bomb squad, the airborne unit and the SWAT team.
“We pull out all the stops,” Daugherty said. “They get something they'll never forget.”
Plunkett said he especially enjoyed learning about driving pursuit tactics from the back seat of a squad car.
“The way they drive, it's crazy,” he said. “They do their maneuvers in like half-seconds.”
Bailey Harder, 15, couldn't get enough of the canine unit and meeting Titan, a 5-year-old German shepherd trained to find bombs.
“I don't think Gabby, my basset hound at home, would do that,” Harder said as she watched Titan sprint through tunnels and leap over fences on an obstacle course.
Harder and the rest of her classmates call themselves “Class Five,” representing the program's fifth year.
To Harder, it's “the best of the best class.”
“It's obvious everyone is really interested in what we're learning,” she said. “It's not like they just came to do something over the summer.”
Daugherty agrees. He said the police department hopes to expand the program to accommodate more teens and eventually add an advanced student academy for repeat participants.
“It's nice to know the teachers, counselors and people in our community are able to recognize our future leaders,” Daugherty said. “These are the kind of kids we want to introduce to law enforcement work, and what better way than with something like this.”
The police department holds two police academies for hired recruits per year. Each academy lasts seven months and trains 50 to 60 recruits. Even though more than 1,000 people apply for each cycle, the recruiting office is looking to attract higher quality applicants.
“It may sound good that 1,000 people applied, but there are not 1,000 stars in there,” said Lt. Gamille Hardin, recruiting office supervisor. “That's why we're so actively and strongly recruiting. We want the best applicants out there.”
Police aren't sure how many students from the camp will go into law enforcement, but Daugherty said he hopes most of them will consider doing so once they turn 21 and become eligible to apply.
As she petted tufts of tan fur off Titan, Harder said she may like to work with the canine unit. Or become a veterinarian. At this point, she's not decided either way.
Daugherty said he knows the camp still benefits those who don't end up becoming police officers.
“We talk about being on time, good work habits and what it takes to make team unity,” Daugherty said. “They're learning such great real-world character traits they can take to any profession.”
But for Plunkett, this week's experience has deepened his interest in law enforcement, especially in the SWAT team units. It's also corrected some misconceptions about police.
“With this sort of job you make a difference every single day you go out,” Plunkett said. “I can tell these people genuinely care about what they do. I have a lot more respect for them now.”