New Jennings Police Commander Tries to Right the Ship
The robber, who has gold teeth and a doo-rag, doesn't cooperate. In a flash, he reaches into his pocket and whips out his gun. That prompts Smith to pull his own trigger, peppering the thug with three shots to the chest.
Smith may be wearing a bulletproof vest and police belt, but he's no cop. He's a young, bespectacled, gum-chomping teenager from Jennings, and he's here at the St. Louis County and Municipal Police Academy in Wellston, taking part in a remarkably lifelike crime simulation. It's part of a county-run program called "Teen Academy" that introduces kids to the fundamentals of law enforcement. This is the first time the program has been offered to kids from Jennings; it's one of the handful of new community initiatives the city has implemented to foster a better rapport with the police.
The simulator depicting the fictitious bank robbery is the same one used by actual police recruits. Purchased for more than $100,000, the apparatus features life-sized actors staging criminal situations -- domestic disturbances, robberies and the like -- all of which are projected cinematically onto a giant screen. The idea is to let recruits practice their decision-making skills when it comes to using deadly force. If the recruit decides to shoot, the system's laser technology identifies the exact spots the bullets would land, based on the recruit's aim.
Thirteen-year-old Dewey Pearson, above, says he wants to be a police officer when he grows up.
The six Jennings kids who are here tonight -- the youngest is 12 years old -- take turns firing their weapons at bad guys. One boy with a Mohawk shoots a knife-wielding man taking a hostage at a hospital. A young girl fires at a man lurking in a shadowy corner, gripping an ax.
The six-week Teen Academy is run by Officer Kevin Martin, a sinewy, buzz-cutted brick of a man who also serves as the neighborhood policing officer for Jennings. Martin began the session by outfitting the kids with police belts, replica guns and bullet-proof vests that for two children hover just above the knees. Minutes later the pint-size patrolmen were marching single-file into the building, patting the plaque that honors fallen officers on their way inside.
The kids seem to relish the program. They laugh as they run laps in the gym while an instructor hollers "Give me all you got, recruits!" One boy announces he wants to be a cop when he grows up.
It's a nice respite for a group of young people who are perhaps too familiar with crime. Two of the kids say they went to school with the 14-year-old Jennings Junior High girl shot in the face last June, the innocent victim of a frivolous quarrel that escalated into a gun war.
"The whole fight was over an iPod," recalls a skinny 12-year-old boy enrolled in the academy. "It still feels unsafe here."
Back at the early-morning warrant roundup, Officer Rob Kircher is banging on the door of a house on Sapphire Avenue. "County Police!" he barks. His three fellow officers encircle the home.
A child answers the door, clad in a white polo shirt, all ready for school. Two more children join him. Soon, the children's mother emerges with a gray hoodie pulled over her face and draped over her back like a cape. The children begin to cry. The mother violated her parole terms, and she's driven back to the station, handcuffed to the wall and told to remove her shoelaces. She'll be transported to the St. Louis Justice Center later in the day.
By the end of the roundup, the detail made fifteen arrests, eleven for felonies. None of the suspects wanted for violent offenses answered their doors.
Fuesting is optimistic that crime will continue to drop and expresses his loyalty to the residents. "The Jennings community is amazing," he says. "Coming in we heard negative things through the media, but once we got know them we realized they're such great people. I tell everybody that this city has the most potential in all of North County."
After just eight months, he says, "This is the most rewarding position I've had in my entire career."