They checked the tint on the windows, wanting to get everything right. Even the license, obviously a fake, was questioned — after all, they had something to prove.
More than 30 children between the ages of 11 and 14 participated in the Road DAWG camp at the West Springfield District Station of the Fairfax County Police last week, an unorthodox type of summer camp in which students are given the chance to spend time with police officers and learn the dangers of gangs.
At the end of the week, the campers ran through a series of three scenarios: responding to a noise violation, conducting a traffic stop and investigating the bedroom of someone believed to be associated with a gang.
“The kids realize how hard it is to be a cop and keep your composure,” said Office Mark Gleason, the driver of an SUV that was “pulled over” for loud music and speeding by three of the campers. “They’re getting a taste of what it’s like to be a real officer.”
To make matters more difficult for the campers, Gleason and his teammate for the scenario, Officer Jessica Esparza, turned up the music in their vehicle. She was also holding what the campers were told was an alcoholic beverage, which they discovered after pulling the car over for speeding.
“I don’t think they realized how loud the music can be,” Esparza said. “But they did comment about how dark the windows are tinted, which is impressive.”
The three campers returned from their squad car with the officer who was guiding them through the stop, ready to give Gleason a ticket for his bad driving.
“Being a cop is difficult,” said Nelson Bojourquez, 13, after the session was finished.
“There’s lots of problems” when pulling someone over, said 10-year-old Shaun Biatton. “The music was loud, the windows were tinted and they were dark. The guy wasn’t very cooperative either.”
Nelson agreed, and added “his woman was drinking beer” when they stopped the vehicle, which had been parked under a blue and yellow tarp to keep out the sun.
DURING THE COURSE of the week-long camp, the students were taken for a ride in a police cruiser, paid a visit to the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center and got a feel for what the life of a police officer is like, said public information officer Keela Lowry.
“This camp started three years ago in this station,” she said of the Road DAWG Camp, which stands for Don’t Associate With Gangs.
The students in the camp were nominated by their principals, teachers, school resource officers and counselors, selected because of their leadership abilities, Lowry said.
“The kids get to see how they operate and all the toys they get to use,” she said. “Plus, it’s a privilege for the parents too, their kids are with the police for several hours a day.”
Officers who participate in the program have one goal in mind: that the students will take something from the camp and share it with their friends and communities, helping to make their neighborhoods a little safer on their own.
“I really liked riding in the patrol car,” said Rolando Bojorquez, 12, sitting with his brother Nelson and Shaun, discussing their traffic stop.
After spending the week with Fairfax County officers, Shaun said he understood that police officers should be taken seriously and respected.
“I saw what can happen when people drink and drive too,” said Shaun, after a mother whose daughter died after drinking too much told the campers about how it changed her life.
Nelson said he had learned that “police officers can be your friends if you’re in trouble,” but a trip to the detention center made him certain that “you don’t want to get locked up. We saw a bunch of killers and murderers and rapists.”
Visiting the jail had an impact on Shaun too. “Some things you wanted to see, some you didn’t,” he said. “This is the best camp I’ve been to. I will come back.”
AT THE END of the week, Jeremy NiCkens said his favorite part of the week was visiting the jail.
“This one guy threatened to beat me up,” he said. “I wasn’t scared, but I learned that you don’t want to go to jail.”
His friend Melvin Rascinos said the women at the jail “had their hands out of the bars and were trying to grab at us. It was kind of scary.”
As another group of campers finished conducting the traffic stop, they talked about how “uncooperative” some people might be when getting pulled over.
“If you want the people in the car to respect you, you have to respect them too,” said Carlos Lefler.
“It was really fun,” said Andy Zuniga. “We got to experience what a cop goes through. It’s not always safe to pull over a car, you never know when the people in it might hurt you.”
During the week, they had taken a trip to the police shooting range where officers are trained, said Edwin Romero. They learned a lot about gangs and agreed that getting involved in one wasn’t a smart idea.
“Gangs are a sure way to ruin your life,” Edwin said.
“Once you go into a gang, the only way out is in a box,” added Andy.
But help is only a phone call away, Carlos said. “All you have to do is call 911 and the officers will come as soon as they can. Nothing will happen to you when you have the cops behind you.”
In his first year with the camp, Officer Andy Missler was impressed with the campers’ progress in a week.
“It’s phenomenal. Some of the things these kids say, some of the words coming out of their mouths about the camp is impressive,” he said.
Missler admitted to having some apprehension at the beginning of the week, but “you can see the kids have grown to appreciate our work and can see what they can do as a team," he said.
INTERACTING WITH such a large group of students on a one-to-one basis gives officers the chance to make the personal impressions they could not do otherwise, Missler said.
“We hear their thoughts on cops, gangs, life, what they see on a daily basis. It’s eye opening on both sides,” he said.
But the camp does have an impact on some of the students who pass through the program, said Officer Rex Pagerie, who has been with the camp since the beginning.
“Last year, a few months after the camp, we had a traffic stop in a somewhat dangerous neighborhood. There were a bunch of kids on the street, which made it more stressful,” Pagerie said.
He and his partner were approached by two of the children on the street, who had participated in one of the Road DAWG camps and asked if they could be of any help. They ran to their homes, put on their camp T-shirts and held the other children back, allowing the officers to conduct the traffic stop safely, he said.
“They see that this job isn’t easy and they get to put themselves in the shoes of an officer,” Pagerie said.
Children who are invited to participate in the camp “are not bad kids,” he said. “These are kids who might need more mentoring than other kids, but it’s a broad scope. Most of these kids are great. By Friday, I’m always pleased by what I see.”