HELENA — High school students from around Montana are in Helena this week, taking part in the Junior Police Leadership Academy. While the program centers around giving teens a firsthand look at law enforcement activities, students and instructors alike say the key word of the experience is “leadership.”
“They actually said we’re going to come out of this being totally different people, and I can already see a change happening, two days in,” said Emily Egstad, a senior at Gallatin High School in Bozeman.
Egstad is one of 13 students taking part in the program this year. Her fellow participants already recognized her leadership by electing her chief of their class.
The Montana Association of Chiefs of Police sponsors the academy every year. Law enforcement agencies from across the state send officers to serve as instructors. Over a busy six days, they give them a taste of the operations and training of officers in the state.
“I have no complaints, I love it,” said Cole Dyk, also a Gallatin High senior. “Very high-paced – I don’t think they have it once where we’re just bored out of our minds, it’s go, go, go.”
The week began with work in the classroom, then expanded to hands-on activities. On Tuesday, students practiced at the law enforcement driving track at the Helena airport. They rode along with instructors to experience the high speeds and fast turns of a pursuit, then got behind the wheels themselves to work on maneuvering around obstacles.
“It was a lot of fun,” said Dyk. “There was a couple of moments I had my feet pushed to the floorboard, but it was fun.”
“I’m surprised I didn’t hit any cones on the track behind us – I was shocked I didn’t hit any,” Egstad said. “But we’ve been taught step by step. They let us learn ourselves, but they’re always right there to catch us.”
The students spent Wednesday at Sheep Mountain, near Clancy. There, the main event was practicing rappelling more than 20 feet down a rock face, with help from Lewis and Clark Search and Rescue.
“They have to face their fears,” said Missoula Police Department Sgt. Patrick Malone, the camp commander for JPLA. “They have to accomplish something that might scare them, but they’re able to do that, and then they feel that success immediately.”
Even MTN’s reporter took that to heart and tried to rappel.
Last year, the academy had to be canceled due to COVID-19. Students say it’s fun to be back in a group activity like this after an unusual year. Instructors say they’re glad to again be working with these teens.
“Our youth are our future, and if we’re not helping that youth grow into successful leaders, we’re not doing our part,” Malone said. “We have to make sure that we have those coming up behind us who are ready to take the reins when we’re ready to give them up, and they can take our place and move forward so we can continue to have success – not only in law enforcement but in every degree of our communities.”
This year, the JPLA program was smaller than normal because of COVID restrictions. Next year, Malone says they hope to be back to their normal size of 30 to 40 students.
Students who are interested in participating in JPLA have to write an essay and get a recommendation from their local police chief or sheriff.