'I'm a different person now'

At The American Legion Law Enforcement Career Academy in Prescott, Ariz., “integrity” is a buzzword, heard almost as often as “yes sir” or “thank you sir.”For the camp’s 2009 graduates, integrity is the core of what they’ve achieved, the chief characteristic of a personal transformation.

“I have goals (now). I have honor. I have integrity,” said 17-year-old Teodora Luna of Phoenix, the academy’s top female physical-fitness performer. “I’m a different person now.”

Established 25 years ago, the Legion’s Law Enforcement Career Academy combines physical training with team-building exercises aimed to improve adolescents’ self-esteem and self-discipline. Federal, state and local law-enforcement officers act as both between camp counselors and drill sergeants for participating teens, many of whose family backgrounds put them at risk for behavioral and other problems.

“It started out, officially, as a camp for kids interested in law enforcement. It’s grown into a camp for kids wanting direction,” said Frank Whitten, camp director and a member of American Legion Post 61 in Avondale. “Right away the cops are in their face. They get on them right away. During the week they start transforming. By (the last day), you’d never know they were the same kids that had come in a week earlier.”

Seeing the life changes of struggling teenagers is one of the reasons why Arizona Department of Public Safety Sgt. Dan Palmer has spent nearly 20 years as a camp counselor. For the past five years, he’s served as camp commandant.

“When they come in, the majority of these kids are withdrawn,” said Palmer, a member of Post 61 who recently retired after 22 years in the Arizona Air National Guard. “They’re scared. They lack confidence. They have about zero discipline. The majority of them, you can see it on their face.

“They go from, ‘It’s all about me,’ to, in two days, ‘It’s the team.’ That’s all you hear about: ‘Us, we, guys, we’ve got to get together.’ It starts happening in a couple days.

That was the experience of Bradley Staley, 17, of Peoria, Ariz. After suffering lacerations to his knee mid-week, Staley had the option to go home. But there was no way he would leave camp, he said.

“You learn to be a family,” Staley said. “We all stay together until the end, no matter what.

“When you first get here, everyone wants to go home. Now that I’m injured, I miss the physical training. I miss the running and the pushups. Missing the graduation run was the worst part. I would love to be able to come back next year so I can get the whole experience.”

Physical fitness is a big part of academy training – participants are taken on a 6-mile run, broken up by physical training “breaks,” on their first day – but exercise isn’t all it’s about. Reading comprehension and writing ability are tested, and participants are taught citizenship and ethics. They’re also exposed to a long list of law enforcement-related topics: defensive tactics, canine handling, cyber crimes, SWAT teams and driver’s safety.

“During check-in, we want them to know that, one, I’m in charge, and they’re going to be moving a lot and with a purpose,” Palmer said. “The second thing they’re going to learn is time management.”

Students are assigned nicknames the first day, after turning over cell phones, credit cards, keys, wallets and money during check-in. “We want to protect their property, and it lets these kids know mentally that they’re not going anywhere,” Palmer said.

“If they want to leave, they come to me.”

No soda or smokes are allowed, either. Everyone wears a standard uniform – shorts and a T-shirt during physical activities, battle-dress uniform pants and polo shirts for dress occasions – and everyone stands at attention at their tables in the dining hall until everyone is served. Oh, and no elbows on the table.

That may sound strict, but the discipline worked for Peter Chavez, 13, of Phoenix, who graduated in 2009 with 46 other youth. “I believe it’s changed my attitude and the way I act around adults,” he said. “I think it’s made me a little more mature.”William Wallace, 18, of Kearney, Ariz., went through the camp as a participant before returning this year as an adviser.

“I’m just really happy to be back,” Wallace said. “My role is to motivate the cadets – to help them out with their uniforms, to help out with injuries, to just be there for them and take care of whatever they need.

“The kids I helped this year reminded me a lot of me. When I first showed up, I felt like they weren’t going to get anything out of me,” Wallace said. “They weren’t going to prove anything. But on graduation day I felt like a better person. I felt I had come a long way. It brought out what I didn’t know I had inside me. It brought out leadership skills I didn’t know I had. I ran 6.7 miles, and I didn’t know I could do that.”

There’s no blueprint for how to deal with the camp participants, because each class is different, Palmer said.

“The biggest difference between kids in the ’90s and these kids is the kids in the ’90s were much bigger. They were bigger-framed kids. They were tougher,” he said.

“These kids are more intellectual and smaller-framed. You’ve got to deal with them differently. In the ’90s we could yell and scream and get them to do whatever we wanted. That doesn’t necessarily work with these kids. You have to get to their intellectual level, because most of them are smarter than we are. You’ve got to get to their level and then work from there.”

One thing can be counted on, though: Palmer rarely has a voice left at the end of camp.

“I try to keep the tempo going,” he said. “Every once in a while it’s like basic training. They’re going to goof up, and you’ve got to break them down to build them back up.”

The academy concludes with a graduation ceremony that includes participants’ friends and family. Dave Hornung, who works at the Greenlee County Sheriff’s Office, served as a new camp staffer in 2009 and hopes it’s not the last academy graduation he witnesses. “I’m sure praying that I get asked to come back,” he said. “This is amazing. You see a group of 47 individuals coming in thinking ‘me’ become a group thinking ‘we.’ To see how these kids have transformed is just amazing. I have hope for the future when I look at kids like these.”

Hornung said his own son attended the Legion’s Law Enforcement Career Academy in 2008. “It saved his life. He was heading down a bad road, and this camp turned him around.”

That’s the point, Palmer said.

“Most of my staff has been with me since ’05, and I tell them each year that if we can save one kid, we’re successful,” he said. “It’s the kids. They’re our future. That’s what this is about.”For information on conducting your own law enforcement camp, contact Sgt. Dan Palmer. dpalmer@azdps.gov

(602) 223-2553