Pushing teens out of their comfort zone energizes cadets at Youth Police Academy

A Northeastern University youth police academy cadet fights off a pretend assailant played by a Northeastern University police officer during a self-defense class simulation. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Niashay Bruton, an 18-year-old senior at Dearborn STEM Academy in Roxbury, had already overcome her chronic fear of dogs during a challenging week at Northeastern’s Youth Police Academy when suddenly she was grappling with another—her fear of heights.

“At first I was even scared of the little ones,” says Bruton of the tree-top rope course she and roughly 25 other cadets took last Thursday. The courses have a mix of platforms, suspension bridges, and other obstacles ranging from just a few feet off the ground to 45 feet high.

That’s when Northeastern University Police Officer Doug Comman stepped in.

“I heard Officer Comman telling me not to give up and just focus on trying to get to the next level,” says Bruton, adding that her anxiety got worse as she climbed the ladder to start her second, even higher rope course.

“He told me not to look down, just to keep pushing. And once I got through that one, I wasn’t as scared anymore,” she says.

Facing fears and busting out of comfort zones is a major part of the Northeastern University Police Department’s Youth Police Academy, which aims to give local teens a sense of what they’d face if they choose a career in law enforcement. Between 25 to 30 teenagers take the week-long course that’s offered once over the summer break and again in February.

“It’s really amazing because they have to rely on each other to complete the academy and it’s a test of trust and relationship-building,” says NUPD Sgt. John Farrell, who oversees the program.

A Northeastern University police officer has a Youth Police Academy student punch her hand before he participates in a self-defense exercise. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

“The officers get just as much, if not more, out of the experience because it reminds us of the reasons why we got into this line of work,” he says.

The gaggle of youths from ages 13 to 19 years are a prominent presence on the Boston campus, jogging every morning and doing pushups and situps on the field at the William E. Carter Playground before getting lessons in self-defense and fingerprinting.

The academy is no languid summer camp, however. Teens are taught to address their superiors with “Yes, ma’am,” or “No, Ma’am.” They’re expected to respect their superiors, arrive on time, and follow directions much like the rules they’d face at any police academy.

“For us, putting that discipline in them is very important and I think that’s part of the key to the success of this academy,” says NUPD officer Anika Crutchfield, who has helped run the academy since it started in 2018.

Cadets also discuss gun safety and meet with members of the Boston Police Department’s anti-gang unit. The basic defensive police tactics they learned are put to the test in heavily supervised simulations where the teens fight back against police officers who play the part of aggressors.

English Boston High School senior Jason Peralta, 18, said the discipline and training prepared him for a potential job in law enforcement,  a safety net in case his dream of playing professional soccer falls through.

“These are important things to learn. They’re things that any policeman should know how to do,” says Peralta, who also learned how to provide on-scene first aid like using an EpiPen.

The program has become very popular, says Farrell, and the officers are happy to be back after a break in 2020 due to COVID-19 precautions.

“We get to the end and you see how some of these kids are when they first come in. Some of them have attitudes or their parents wanted them to go. At the end, you see their attitude is totally different. They learned something, they gained something out of it,” says NUPD officer Derek McGill.

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