BIG LESSONS LEARNED AT NPD Jr. POLICE ACADEMY

“Sir, yes, sir!”

That was a common refrain echoed in the gym at Nutley’s Spring Garden School all last week as 75 boys and girls responded to commands from Det. Sgt. Michael Padilla.

Learning discipline was one of the big lessons the youngsters picked up as the NPD’s fifth annual Junior Police Academy played out.

Padilla, who has led the program each year, credited fellow cops and Nutley High School students volunteering their time, along with support from Chief Tom Strumolo, Police Director Al Petracco and administrative assistant Dana Melillo with contributing to its success.

It’s part of what Padilla called the NPD’s commitment to “community-oriented policing” in the township.

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And just how popular is it among local school kids? Well, “we’re 25 over last year,” Padilla noted. “And we filled our capacity in just two weeks after we gave notice of enrollment.”

Nutley kids in grades 5 through 8 are invited to join and, Padilla noted, “we don’t turn anyone away.” Including those with special needs.

Even youngsters somewhat resistant to following “commands” are won over, well before week’s end, he added.

The program pretty much follows a typical school day schedule, with events starting at 9 a.m. and ending at 3 p.m. Parents drop off their kids in the morning and pick them up in the afternoon.

And no question, there’s plenty to do to keep the junior cadets occupied, as evidenced by the past week’s agenda: Monday, they got to see a National Guard helicopter land and, later, got to check out an NFD rig and spray water with a fire hose; Tuesday featured “team-building” exercises, a drunk-driving Field Sobriety Test simulation and a “crime scene” scenario; Wednesday had the cadets going through self-defense tactics (with help from instructors of Carnicella Mixed Martial Arts) and listening to supervised state prison inmates relate their circumstances; Thursday, they visited the Turtle Back Zoo; and Friday was graduation, complete with bagpiper and parents in attendance treated to a video showing excerpts of the week’s activities.

“It’s a great outreach program for the community,” Padilla said. “It allows kids insight into what we do as police officers. And just as officers are respectful of those in our community, we tell our cadets to be mindful of others.”

Incidentally, kids aren’t banned from bringing cell phones. “They can use their phones up to 5 minutes before 9 [a.m.] and then, only in case of an emergency,” Padilla said. “We want our kids to interact with each other in a world that’s dominated by social media.”

NPD Officer Mark Vicidomini, in his third year as a program volunteer, said it’s the perfect setting for kids to “learn respect” for themselves and others. “You want to see a kid come up and shake hands, look the other person in the eyes. Old school stuff.”

His colleague, Officer Joe O’Halloran, is new at the program but he was finding it “awesome,” although he conceded he may be a little biased, given that two of his sons ages 13 and 11 are among the cadets.

The younger one “wants to be a trooper in the canine unit,” dad said.

Indeed, several of the cadets randomly interviewed on Wednesday expressed a desire to seek out a path to law enforcement and/or “the military” as a future career.

At the same time, “fun” was a word most kids used to describe their experiences.

Fifth-grader Ryan Kirk, 10, said he got a thrill from “looking inside” the National Guard chopper and “touching” the interior. He plans to become a “robotics engineer so I can make stuff for the police department.”

Eleven-year-old fifth-grader Aarav Jain is aiming for a future in the military “to help my country stay safe and independent.”

Victoria Horniacek, 13, a seventh-grader, wants to go into the military because it will be “a good experience” and she thinks going through the Academy ropes is helpful. “I learn to do commands and marching formations definitely educational.”

Fifth-grader Rocco DeLitta, 11, said his dad is a police officer and that’s a career to which he aspires. How about the Academy? “I like it,” he affirmed.

Vincent Almeida, 10, a fifth-grader, was candid when asked why he was in the program. “I didn’t really have anything else to do this summer,” he said, but since several of his “friends were going,” he opted to join. “It’s been really fun,” he said, “and I’m learning what the police do.”

Padilla, a 17-year member of the NPD, said he’s encouraged by what the program can mean, especially for some of the more reserved youngsters.

There are times, he said, “when I’ll see some kids coming in Monday maybe lacking confidence, holding back, but by the time they leave, I see them with the heads held high, they’re working with others, working as a team. I’m hoping that they’re not only leaving here as a new person but also that they’re going to continue to do those things outside in the community and, ultimately, as future leaders. And that gives you a sense of pride, that they can build on those skill sets in the outside world.”

Padilla noted that several of the NHS helpers are Academy alums “so they’re actually coming back and giving back to their community.”

“It’s one thing saying you want to get involved in your community,” Padilla said. “It’s another thing actually doing it.”

He’s certainly done it.

Ron Leir | Observer Correspondent

Ron Leir has been a newspaperman since the late ’60s, starting his career with The Jersey Journal, having served as a summer reporter during college. He became a full-time scribe in February 1972, working mostly as a general assignment reporter in all areas except sports, including a 3-year stint as an assistant editor for entertainment, features, religion, etc. He retired from the JJ in May 2009 and came to The Observer shortly thereafter. He is also a part-time actor, mostly on stage, having worked most recently with the Kearny-based W.H.A.T. Co. and plays Sunday softball in Central Park, N.Y.