Lessons from the city’s finest

Youth Academy teaches teens the serious art of saving lives, solving crimes
Thursday, June 21, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:02 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Eight-year-old Tabitha Bramblett is going to stuff this weighted dummy in the back of a squad car to finish her run of the Columbia Police Department’s Youth Academy obstacle course. Officer Cathy Dodd gives her a hand, while Officer Wendy Stokes checks Tabitha’s time.

On Wednesday morning, a group of Columbia teenagers found out what it feels like to be trapped under tons of rubble and to depend on a well-trained search and rescue dog to save them. Lt. Lee Turner and canine search specialist Kathleen Baska of the Columbia Fire Department followed up a presentation of their search and rescue efforts in New York City and New Orleans by taking the students to “the rubble pile,” a large mound of broken concrete outside the Boone County Fire Training Center intended to look like a collapsed building.

Here, they introduced the students to what Turner said is one of their most important tools in a search and rescue mission, a 5-year-old Dutch shepherd named Calvary, or Cal for short.


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Baska, Cal’s handler, explained the training process and had Cal demonstrate his skills on an obstacle course.

After that, Baska placed Cal in a van while four student volunteers put on helmets and hid in the rubble pit. Cal was then released and sent to find them. Within minutes, he had located all four, each time signaling his discovery with a series of loud barks.

Thus began day three of Columbia Police Department’s Youth Academy, a weeklong course offered every summer to Columbia teens to give them insight into the work of police and first responders.

Tuesday morning, Columbia police Officer Cathy Dodd test drove a golf cart through a winding path of traffic cones in a parking lot in Cosmo Park. Fifteen minutes later, when Sgt. Eric White and a busload of 27 teenagers pulled into the lot, they would do the same, with one catch: They had to navigate the narrow course while wearing goggles designed to simulate the effects of alcohol on their vision.

Monday, the students toured the Boone County Jail and met the K-9 unit.

Megan Kaiser, 17, said her interest in forensic science prompted her to sign up.

“I want to do the CSI part of it,” she said.

“We were looking for something to do over the summer besides playing video games,” said Mike Richardson, 13. “My mom suggested it to me, so I called my friends.”

Columbia police Officer Linda Fincham is now in her fifth year of supervising the event. She is used to working with teens. She and the other officers who run the Youth Academy are all school resource officers who regularly go to Columbia’s schools to teach students about topics in law enforcement including alcohol safety, police searches and drug abuse. Fincham said she hopes the Academy will encourage young people to pursue a career in law enforcement.

After the students stepped off the bus, officers lined them up and separated them into four groups.

One group followed Dodd up a grassy hill separated from the parking lot by a row of trees. The students lined up to run an obstacle course. They had to jump over a hurdle, cross a balance beam, negotiate a trap made of eight tires, run down the hill onto the sand volleyball court, tag a pole, run back 10 yards to pick up a dummy and drag it to a parked squad car and stuff it in the back seat, while Officer Wendy Stokes recorded their times.

Another group met Sgt. Timothy Moriarty and Officer Scott Sergent at a mock accident scene. The students learned how to determine how fast a driver was going by measuring the length of the skid marks behind the car. Moriarty also demonstrated how to use the radar gun and explained how officers report accident information.

A third group followed Officer Brian Grove toward a police van used in sobriety checkpoints.

“We call it the BAT van,” Grove said, explaining that BAT stands for Blood Alcohol Test. The students listened and asked questions while Grove explained the tests police use to determine whether a motorist is intoxicated.

Officers Melvin Buckner and Mark Brotemarkle took turns riding alongside students as they attempted to drive a golf cart between orange cones while wearing what the officers call “Fatal Vision Goggles.” To help the students gauge the difference between driving while intoxicated and driving normally, each student drove the course once with goggles and once without.

“Everything was wavy and a little bit to the left of where it should be, and it felt weird when you turned your head,” said Joel Johnstone, 13, who earned the dubious honor of knocking over the most cones in his group.

After everyone had a turn, Brotemarkle and the students discussed what they learned from the exercise.

“The biggest problem with driving while you’re intoxicated is that you may do it once without a problem,” he said. “You may do it twice without a problem, and so you start to build up this false confidence, but then something or someone comes along and the next thing you know, you’re in a serious accident.”

Later in the week, Youth Academy students will meet SWAT team members, tour the courthouse, meet emergency medical team members and learn about criminal investigation and forensic science.

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