- Associated Press - Monday, December 1, 2014

ROCKFORD, Ill. (AP) - A course being piloted at Jefferson High School is exposing students to a potential career in law enforcement and could provide the Rockford Police Department a diverse source of future recruits.

For students like junior Quetzia Ramirez, 16, Sgt. Eric Bruno’s Crime Scene Investigation course, which teaches the basics of crime solving, might have already set her on a path toward fulfilling her dream of becoming a detective.

Ramirez admires police officers “because they are out there risking their lives.” Although it’s a profession dominated by men, law enforcement has fascinated Ramirez for most of her young life.

“I don’t really look at it as men being able to do what women can’t do,” Ramirez said. “I usually just see it as if you set your mind to do something … you are going to do it, if it’s just something you love.”

Along with urban police departments across the nation, Rockford has struggled to correct a historic racial and gender imbalance among its sworn officers. Although 42 percent of Rockford residents are members of minority groups, the police force is 82 percent white and 87.5 percent male.

Along with other factors - including how departments respond to complaints of excessive force - such racial imbalance can breed distrust, minority civic leaders and police officials say.

The department has placed a new focus on developing homegrown recruits by encouraging Rockford’s youth to consider a career in law enforcement. At the same time, the Rockford School District has increased efforts to help students identify and develop career aspirations while still in high school.

Those changes have led to a new partnership among the Rockford School District, Rockford Police Department and the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.

Jefferson is the only school so far to offer the CSI class.

The school will expand law enforcement-related offerings next year. In addition to the yearlong CSI course aimed mainly at juniors, Jefferson will offer semester-long courses geared toward seniors on evidence collection and introduction to criminal justice. Courses could expand to other high schools, as well.

This is the first year the CSI course is being offered.

In addition to the classroom component, there is a companion physical fitness gym class taught by Kami Lund geared toward preparing students to pass a police, firefighting or military physical fitness test.

Although Bruno is not a certified teacher, he is allowed to teach the CSI component as a lecturer through the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. Students who attend the university after taking his course can get college credit if they earned at least a C.

The Rockford Police Department adjusted Bruno’s schedule to accommodate the first-period course. Bruno leads the department’s domestic violence unit.

He is teaching the high school students the basics of detective work. Subjects have included securing a crime scene, evidence collection, and accountability and interviewing witnesses, victims and suspects.

Bruno is also touching on seminal moments in the history of police work.

Some students had never heard of the 1991 beating of Rodney King or the 1992 Los Angeles riots sparked by the acquittal of police officers who were involved.

They also learned about the “North Hollywood shootout,” a 1997 bank robbery in which two heavily armed and armored assailants were killed in a brutal 44-minute gun battle that injured 11 police officers. Police departments across the country upgraded their weapons and training in response.

“These are really good kids and they have been very receptive,” Bruno said. “This is something different. It’s not the traditional reading, writing and arithmetic. We’re looking at this as if we are training possible police officers to come back and work for the Rockford Police Department one day.”

The CSI class has attracted a range of students from the merely curious to those who are serious about a career in law enforcement, military service or homeland security.

Jorge Casasola, 18, a senior, raved about the course. He said that Bruno has made the class interesting by sharing stories from his career and presenting information in a fun way.

“My dream is to someday be a Secret Service agent,” Casasola said. “Maybe this could teach me or get me started on what I need to learn. Defending the most important person of this nation is a great responsibility and something I would like to do.”

Jamal Barnett, 16, a junior, said he intends to become a criminal prosecutor one day. He took the class to learn about the criminal justice process. Plus, the fitness portion of the class is challenging him to get in better shape.

A basketball player, Jordan Cox, 17, said the physical fitness portion of the class, which on Thursday involved a high-intensity 15-minute cardio and strength training workout followed by sprints, was challenging even for an athlete.

Cox, who is black, said he would pursue a law enforcement career.

Cox has followed news from Ferguson, Missouri, where the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager in August during an altercation with police sparked racially charged unrest. It did not change his mind about becoming a police officer.

“I can make it change,” Cox said.

___

Source: Rockford Register Star, https://bit.ly/1tFhgL9

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