- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 3, 2004

Here’s the setup: A minor joins the local police force to work undercover sting operations and learn policing from the ground up.

It sounds like the plot from a TV cop show like “The Mod Squad” or “21 Jump Street.”

But for more than 25 years, the Fairfax County Police Department has employed 18- to 20-year-old men and women as cadets to do just that. In fact, police officials say many cadets later join the force as officers — former Chief M. Douglas Scott among them.

“It is not like TV. There is a lot of mundane work,” says Lt. Michael Fish, supervisor of the police cadet program, which currently has 14 officers in training.

Those “mundane” tasks include clerical chores, transporting evidence and working in the copy room — or even the chief’s office. Cadets work full time, wear uniforms with shoulder badges and earn $25,500 a year. Although they have no police authority, cadets frequently aid certain police operations.

For example, Andre Marshall recently bought a bottle of vodka at a West Springfield liquor store.The clerk never saw the 19-year-old’s identification because Mr. Marshall wasn’t carrying any.

Minutes later, Mr. Marshall — a police cadet since February — returned to the store with a uniformed officer who issued the clerk a citation for selling alcohol to a minor.

“If they sell to us, bad on their part. If they don’t, that is good,” says Mr. Marshall, adding that when a store does not sell to a cadet, “we will send them a thank-you note.”

Cadets “fill a need” for the department in alcohol-sting operations, Lt. Fish says, because many look like they could be in high school.

During a sting operation, plainclothes cadets typically visit 30 to 40beer, wine and liquor retailers a night. The fine for selling alcohol to a minor ranges from $50 to $1,000, depending on what the judge deems appropriate.

Fairfax police, with the help of undercover cadets, have issued more than 30 citations since Dec. 8.

Legal specialists say the stings do not constitute entrapment if a clerk asks for identification and the underage person presents a valid ID card, ceases trying to purchase alcohol and immediately leaves the store.

Brendon Miller became interested in the cadet program after being stopped by a motorcycle policeman, who told him about the program. The lanky 19-year-old with a firm handshake thought the officer was “pretty squared away,” and he became a cadet in June.

“I wasn’t a bad kid, but I wasn’t the best,” Mr. Miller says. “I knew that I was going to end up getting into real trouble one day.”

Cadets undergo the same three- to four-month background checks as officers do, and above all the department looks for honesty.

“We are given a lot of responsibilities at a young age,” Mr. Marshall says. “The department [places] a lot of trust in us.”

He says he respects the job and recognizes the responsibility in driving unmarked police cars or watching over the evidence room, where drugs and guns are kept.

Cadets are allowed to go for a ride-along with an officer three times a month. And Mr. Miller and Mr. Marshall take full advantage of that.

During ride-alongs, cadets see everything an officer can face during a shift — from malicious woundings to corpses. The cadets say they learn from the officers’ experience while picking up defensive postures and people skills.

Since Lt. Fish began supervising the program 2 years ago, he has seen about 20 cadets graduate.

“This is a great opportunity for them,” he says.

The Fairfax County Police Department encourages cadets to continue their education by reimbursing them for two college classes per semester.

Mr. Miller took a criminal-law class last semester at Northern Virginia Community College. But compared with his real-life policing experience, he says, “it was really boring.”

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