“Who wants to race?” Gwinnett County Police Department Officer Michael Parker asked the two dozen young teens who sat before him, nearly all of whom were bubbling with excitement.

“Me!” several shouted before Parker could complete his sentence, while others jumped up, ready to test their speeds.

As the teens lined up in pairs at one end of the Gwinnett County Police Department Training Center’s parking lot Friday morning, two motorcycle officers walked over, laser guns in hand.

No, the officers weren’t conducting speed enforcement at the training center; rather, they were clocking how fast the middle schoolers, who were all members of the department’s youth police academy, could sprint.

“This (laser gun) uses light to determine speed; it’s based on time and distance,” motorcycle unit Cpl. John Bussell explained to the teens just before they began their sprints. “Basically, what this does is it sends out a light (beam) and the light hits whatever we want and then comes back and tells us exactly how fast you’re going and how far you are away. If you have a known distance and you have a known time, you can get a known speed. It’s all math. You know how you go through school thinking you’re never going to use that again? Wrong.”

The speed lesson, and several other demonstrations Friday, concluded the weeklong police academy, which is now in its fourth year.

Started in 2016, the Gwinnett County Police Department offers the academy for two weeks each summer — the first week for middle schoolers and the second week for high schoolers. The high school academy begins Monday.

While the classes and demonstrations are intended to be enjoyable, as was evidenced by the smiles on the teens’ faces during Friday’s exercise, the academy is also aimed at providing youth an opportunity to interact more closely with the men and women who protect and serve them, said Parker, who leads the academy.

“They’re at an age where they can understand and they’re at an age where they do have interactions with us, so we want to (teach them) what we do,” Parker said. “We do try to plug it and let them know, ‘Hey, this is an excellent profession to get into,’ but also (teach them) that we’re the good guys. We want them to come out and see some of the cool stuff we do and know, ‘We’re here for you, we’re friendly — yes, sometimes we have to be police officers — but ultimately, there’s no difference between us, except for the job we do.’”

Part of that job, Parker said, requires being respectful, something he tries to impart on the teens during the academy.

“I teach them to be respectful to everyone, but the undertones are of fun; we have a good time,” Parker said. “I want these guys to have fun and get to know each other. What I like most, though, is to see how the kids change from Monday to Friday and the growth in them. I love this program — I wish I had something like this when I was a kid.”

Thirteen-year-old Logan Rainge, a rising eighth-grader at Twin Rivers Middle School, said he, too, loved the academy, and already plans on reapplying next year for the high school session.

“I’d been wanting to come here since last year but wasn’t able to make it, so this year has been a lot of fun,” Rainge said. “My grandfather was a narcotics detective, a police officer and in the Secret Service and both my uncles were corrections officers, so I have (connections) to law enforcement and military.”

Despite already having some knowledge of law enforcement, Rainge said the academy was eye-opening for him.

“I’ve learned leadership skills and learned that you’ve got to step up sometimes, and I’ve learned discipline,” he said. “Waking up early every day to be here, for example, is a big deal and sometimes, like today, it was hard. But we’ve had a lot of fun and I’d like to learn even more about the police.”

Crime Reporter

Isabel is a crime and health reporter for the Gwinnett Daily Post. She graduated from Emory University in 2016 with a B.A. in international studies. She is originally from the Boston area.

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