‘Overwhelming’ interest in Kentwood youth police academy

Kent County

KENTWOOD, Mich. (WOOD) — When Kentwood police began recruiting for this summer’s youth academy, they wondered how the events of the last year would impact the level of interest. 

They did not need to worry.

“Overwhelming,” Sgt. Tim Wierenga said of the response to their recruiting efforts.

Ultimately, 21 teenagers arrived at the Kentwood Police Department Monday for the free weeklong program designed to show would-be officers what policing is really like. 

The academy had 15 participants the last time Kentwood police held the academy, which was the summer before COVID-19 hit.

“It’s only day one, but they’re excited to be here,” said Wierenga, who supervises the department’s community services division. “They’re having a good time. They’re anxious with questions.”

Among the diverse class were two young women, both of whom are headed to college this fall for criminal justice. 

“Sixth grade when Officer Gus came to Valleywood Middle School,” Brooklyn Smithers said of the moment she became interested in law enforcement as a potential career.

“I had like grabbed him and said, ‘I like what you’re doing. I like how you like to help kids and schools,'” Smithers recalled of her first conversation with School Resource Officer Jeff Augustyn. “I love socializing and people helping people, and I feel like I could be great at that.”

Years after their first meeting at the middle school, Augustyn is still mentoring Smithers, who will attend Grand Valley State University this fall.

On hand at the youth police academy, Augustyn gave Smithers a fist pump when she successfully deployed a taser at a silhouette target. 

“I’m learning stuff all the time, every second I’m here,” Smithers said of the program.

The Kentwood Police Department Youth Academy on July 26, 2021.

The 18-year-old said the events of the last year and a half have made her even more determined to enter law enforcement as a career.

“People fail to realize some things may look bad on TV, but there are good people out here who are here for good reasons,” Smithers said of police officers.

She said snippets of video on TV — moments in time — can fail to paint a complete picture of what occurred leading up to a police interaction.

“I know the majority of people who are in (law enforcement) are here to help and build their community,” Smithers said 

Also participating in the weeklong academy is Taylor Kyle, another 18-year-old who will attend college next year for criminal justice.

Kyle, too, was inspired early on by a school resource officer.

“Officer Chad Nawrocki was at my middle school, Crestwood. I’ve always wanted to (go into policing),” Kyle said.

She’s majoring in criminal justice with a minor in business. 

Kyle, who will attend college in Indiana on a track scholarship, owns the Eastown Cereal Cafe, which is set to be featured on the Food Network.

But she says her first interest was policing.

“When I was younger, my parents and I used to talk a lot about my future and what I wanted to be,” Kyle recalled. “I used to watch a lot of crime shows and I saw a lot of police officers, and I was like, ‘that looks kind of exciting.'” 

Kyle said she’s “loving every moment” of Kentwood’s youth police academy. 

“It’s a little nerve wracking, but it’s fun,” said Kyle of the taser exercise, the first interactive simulation of the week. 

Like Smithers, Kyle said protests over policing have not dampened her enthusiasm for a career in law enforcement.

Kentwood police begin recruiting in earnest for its youth police academy in April and May, so anyone who’s interested in the 2022 academy should contact the department next spring. 

Smithers summed up her goal as she embarks on the first leg of her journey toward a career in law enforcement.  

“No hate toward each other. That’s what we need is no hate,” Smithers said.

Separate from the youth police academy, the Kentwood Police Department has also launched a program to sponsor officer candidates, covering their police academy tuition and paying them a salary while they attend.

The Grand Rapids Police Department has a similar sponsorship program.

Kentwood recently completed recruitment for that opportunity, selecting two recruits to sponsor.  

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