Ala. Sheriff's 1st Youth Academy Gives Teens Hands-On Deputy Experience

June 28, 2024
From trying jail food to walking through a SWAT raid, the Morgan County Sheriff's Office's weeklong Sheriff's Youth Academy gave nearly 20 teens a deep dive into what it's like being a deputy.

By David Gambino

Source The Decatur Daily, Ala.

HARTSELLE, AL — A group of teens this week got a taste of what it's like to be a Morgan County Sheriff's Office deputy at the first Sheriff's Youth Academy and came away from the hands-on experience with newfound interests, skills and appreciation for the work of local law enforcement.

"The first day was really fun," said 15-year-old Lily Cocke. "We got to have a traffic stop. We set it up like how an actual traffic stop would go down and got to work through that. We got to drive the rescue boat out on the Tennessee River and stuff. There's been a lot of different things; it's hard to pick one as a favorite."

Cocke scribbled notes Thursday as operators from MCSO's SWAT team explained some of their equipment — such as gas masks, night vision goggles, firearms and a drone — before demonstrating how to clear a building safely. She's taken so many notes this week, in fact, that it's earned her the nickname 'Notes' among her peers.

"Seeing the kids enjoy it and get something out of it," as MCSO spokesman Mike Swafford put it, has been particularly rewarding for the academy's instructors.

"That's what this whole thing is built around," he said. "It's giving them a glimpse of why we do what we do, but then we let them do some hands-on stuff to understand how we do it."

Swafford said plans were in the works for the academy back in 2019, but those plans were derailed by COVID. Eventually, the idea was revisited and, Swafford said, "the stars aligned."

Tom Fredricks and the Hartselle Christian Church Charitable Trust Fund donated $10,000 to help make the academy possible. Swafford said the Alabama Sons of Liberty Riders, a group of motorcyclists, also helped with funding.

Thirteen-year-old Drake Westmoreland said he's interested in a law enforcement career.

"I thought that this program would be cool, see the jail and see how certain forces of the sheriff's department operate," he said.

Westmoreland and several others of the nearly 20 participants said visiting the Morgan County Jail was their favorite part of the week.

"I read a whole bunch of crimes books, I watch a whole bunch of crime TV and stuff," said Cocke. "When we took the trip to the jail, it's a lot different than what people portray it to be, especially on TV, and it changes your perspective a lot. If you've seen the Green Mile, they portray it as a lot of the corrections officers being mean and stuff, but they care about the safety of the prisoners more than their own safety."

Academy students even got to try the jail food, a plate of sausage, cornbread, rice and okra. Cocke and her friend Ella Turney, 16, expected a "disgusting" meal based on pop culture portrayals. Instead, they said "like 94%" of the class really enjoyed it.

Turney said she registered for the academy because Cocke encouraged her to.

"At first, I just thought it would be fun," she said, "and now I'm, like, interested in it and stuff. There's a lot of different jobs I could do. I would either want to do K9 or narcotics, probably."

Swafford's son, 14-year-old Brennan Swafford, said he liked visiting the jail because it's something most people usually won't see.

"Also, you understand how it runs, what the cells look like, the certain privileges that some of them are allowed," he said. "I also liked learning about how the K9 units work and what all they do, as well as how they train them and the different things they'll use the different dogs for."

Brennan Swafford said he has been interested in becoming a doctor but that the academy has "spiked" his interest in a potential career as a patrol deputy.

Fifteen-year-old Riley Clagg said she signed up because she wanted to find something that she would be interested in for the future. Now, she wants to become a corrections officer.

"But I'm kind of introverted, so this is definitely something I'd have to build up to," she said. "I definitely have to work on opening up to people more."

Thursday morning, the last day of the academy, students huddled around Sgt. Gerald Jenkins inside the tactical training facility in Hartselle as he explained SWAT's tactical equipment in a way they could relate to.

"Anyone play Call of Duty?" he asked.

One boy quickly raised his hand. Jenkins then showed them a fully automatic M4 carbine and a submachine gun. Next, Jenkins held up a handheld battering ram.

"This is a key," he explained. "This is a master key."

Next, the students piled into the SWAT van.

"It can hold a whole lot of people, so we don't' have to bring 10 vehicles," he said. "Can you imagine the same amount of people with all that gear on?"

Jenkins shared an anecdote about waiting in the back of the van for an operation for around 10 hours.

Captain Richard Moats unpacked a drone for the next demonstration.

"This is DJI's newest drone they came out with," he said. "It's a first-person point-of-view drone. Y'all ever see an Oculus (VR headset)?"

Several students said yes.

"Same concept," Moats continued. "There's a little dot in the center of the screen, and where I point the controller, the drone goes. That drone costs $1,200. That is much more affordable than sending in one of our operators."

Moats shared an anecdote about recently using the drone to fly over a suspected narcotics house. He explained that the footage could later be used in court proceedings.

"Alright, that's my spiel," he said. "Go and play with the SWAT guys. Have fun."

Students then returned to Jenkins, who handed out Nerf guns. They broke into smaller groups and took turns learning how to tactically enter and clear rooms.

"Morgan County Sheriff's Office search warrant!" one boy yelled before breaching the entrance to the training center.

Operators were with them every step of the way.

"Alright, we got one more door," one deputy said. "You've cleared everything but this room, what do you think? Bad guy in there?"

The "bad guy," also a deputy, was indeed "in there." He suffered a barrage of foam darts fired by the gleeful students.

The SWAT team also offered demonstrations, including a flashbang and breaching a door with explosives. The students were given eye and ear protection and instructed to stand at a safe distance.

The explosive breach was loud. Afterward, instructors and students gathered to inspect the damaged door.

"You can't do that in Call of Duty," Jenkins said.

A girl inspected where the door had splintered near the lock.

"That's not a door anymore," she said. "I think y'all need a new door now."

After lunch, the students learned CPR and first-aid skills using tourniquets and Narcan. In the afternoon, they had a graduation ceremony and received certificates.

Swafford said the first year of the academy has been a learning experience. This year, 30 registration slots were open to ninth through 11th graders in Morgan County. The program is still evolving.

"Next year, we'll probably expand it to seniors or do something different," he said. "We're already talking maybe two weeks next summer — two sessions — because it's been very well received. It's a living, breathing thing that we'll continue to tweak and mold."

Swafford said he expects they'll begin announcing next year's registration in April or May.

"One of the deputies earlier today said he's actually sad it's going to end, because it's probably been one of the more fun weeks that we get to do," he said.


(c)2024 The Decatur Daily (Decatur, Ala.)

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