Rizzo the Albemarle County Police K-9 unit stalked his prey through the field behind Murray High School on Tuesday afternoon. Stopping near a bush, the sleek Belgian malinois suddenly dove into the undergrowth, pulling out a man in a red padded suit.
A hushed “wow” went up from the group of middle school students who stood nearby. When the man tried to get away again, Rizzo flew through the air to tackle him to the ground once more, allowing his handler to handcuff the man.
This week, 23 local students (third to eighth grade) will get to know officers from the Charlottesville and Albemarle County police departments. With help from the Attorney General’s office, the Gang Reduction through Active Community Engagement committee and the local chapter of the Boys & Girls Clubs, local law enforcement is holding the second annual Virginia Rules Summer Camp, a day camp for children to learn more about police work.
On Tuesday, Virginia Attorney General, Mark Herring visited the Albemarle camp to talk to the children about staying safe on the internet.
“It’s so important for parents to be engaged in their children’s lives, including their online activity,” said Herring. “There are a lot of things that kids know about dealing with social media that a lot of older adults may not even think about, like Pokemon Go, Reddit and YikYak.”
“It’s really important to monitor your children’s online activity and make sure you talk to them about what they need to do to stay safe on the internet.”
There are several camps across the state this week, including one in Orange County, and Herring said they give children a fun and positive opportunity to interact with their local law enforcement.
Albemarle County Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Tracci also visited the camp and said it helps build trust between law enforcement and the local community.
“Proactive outreach and crime prevention strategies help identify and defeat crime before it can take root in our community,” Tracci said. “The Gang Reduction through Active Community Education (GRACE) initiative and Virginia Rules Summer Camp facilitate positive community-based relationships that build support and trust in law enforcement.”
It’s dangerous to go alone
Albemarle County Detective Elizabeth Gomez spoke frankly to the group of students about staying safe online and while playing interactive games like the popular Pokémon Go.
“Not everyone online is who they say they are,” Gomez said, warning the students not to reveal too much of themselves online. “If someone is asking you really personal questions, you need to stop talking to them immediately.”
Gomez also talked to the children about going to their parents or another trusted adult if someone ever asked them to take nude photos of themselves — a loud “Ew!” erupted from the group — or if someone was bullying them online.
While talking about Pokemon Go, Gomez told the group that some bad guys are using in-game “lures” to catch people off-guard and rob them. Other people have walked into traffic because they were busy looking at their phones, she said.
“Don’t ever go Pokemon hunting alone,” Gomez said. “And look where you’re going.”
At the end of her presentation, several of the students said they have been enjoying the camp so far, particularly the lesson about staying away from gangs. Alex Becerra, a student at Buford Middle School, said he was enjoying spending time with the officers and his friends.
“It’s fun, it’s a safe environment for everybody and they provide good food,” Becerra said. “We learned about gangs.”
Two of his Buford friends, Damian Thacker and Kendall Pendleton, both said they have been enjoying the camp and playing basketball together. Thacker said he learned a lot during the internet safety presentation.
“It’s fun,” said Thacker. “We do a lot of activities and you learn a lot more things about internet safety and gangs, and how drugs can hurt you. I didn’t know cops use fake accounts online, so that was really intriguing.”
“It’s fun,” Pendleton added. “The activities are fun.”
Kenneth Meadows, a student at Walton Middle School, said he was having fun with the police and shooting basketball with his friends.
“It’s cool hanging out with the officers and to come here every day to shoot basketball,” said Meadows, adding that it was interesting to learn about gangs.
“Gangs are really, really bad,” he said. “There are three things they can do: they can get you killed, put you on the streets or hospitalized.”
A camp of variety
Besides learning about law enforcement, the students also will spend time learning about music, staying active at ACAC and going to a water park, according to Albemarle County Sgt. Terry Walls. The camp is meant to keep children active and let them experience different things.
“We are focused on internet safety, gang prevention and alcohol, drug and tobacco prevention,” Walls said. “And then we have several components that are to help kids expand their horizons a little bit and give them an opportunity to participate in things that maybe they wouldn’t normally.”
“It’s going great,” he added. “They’re staying busy; they’re a very active group of young men and women.”
Under the blazing hot sun, the students watched in awe as Rizzo, and then Roan, another Albemarle County K-9 unit, took turns flying through the air to tackle the man in the red suit — Albemarle County Motor Officer Paul Quillen. Roan’s handler, Katherine Kane, said she hoped the K-9 demonstration would show the children that there are many things in law enforcement they can do.
“One of the things I wanted the kids to see — especially the females — is that this is a job that anybody can do if you have enough drive and willingness to work,” Kane said. “This is not out of anybody’s reach.”
“We can all get out there and do our best, whether you want to be a K-9 officer, work traffic or in schools — just put your mind to it and you can accomplish anything.”
For the rest of the week, the students will learn how to avoid drugs and alcohol, visit the University of Virginia and go to the ACAC water park.