Law and Order 101 for Camden teenagers

Members of the Camden County Police Department's summer Police Explorers program take a field trip to the National Constitution Center.

Over eight weeks this summer, 17 students from Camden have worked a criminal case as though they were detectives, peered through microscopes to see the markings on shell casings, learned about crime-scene investigation techniques, and visited the FBI's Philadelphia offices.

Before joining the Camden County Police Department's Blue Knights program for students, 16-year-old Nyiasha Torres wanted to be a police officer.

"After going to the FBI, now I want to be a bomb technician," she said.

The three-day-a-week program was the first of its kind for the Camden department, which will continue the course this fall as a weekend offering for local students.

The program was developed through a partnership between Camden Police Capt. Richard Verticelli, who started researching Philadelphia's Explorer Cadet program last year, and Tiara Simpson, who had the same idea as a sophomore at Camden's MetEast High School.

Simpson, now 17, said she was inspired by the national conversation about police taking place in the media and, to some degree, in Camden itself.

"I wanted to be part of building a relationship between people and the police," she said. "It's really going to help our community be better."

The Camden department has a program for training junior officers and hiring them for paid work, but Verticelli had in mind something less regimented, aimed at students high school age and younger who were interested in law enforcement, and more in line with some of the community outreach the department has rolled out in recent years, such as neighborhood basketball games.

Not long after Verticelli went to his colleagues and discussed starting the program, he got an email from Simpson, who wanted to pursue the idea as a project for school. Soon, the two met and sketched out a plan.

"I told her, I actually had the same idea - I just hadn't done anything with it!" Verticelli said.

'Thriving'

Verticelli created the curriculum and made Simpson the team leader. Some students signed up on Simpson's suggestion. Detective Brenda Santiago, who runs the program, recruited a few more. Two of the program participants are teenagers she met because they committed minor offenses and landed in her office for questioning.

"They're good kids, and they're thriving here," she said.

Last week the group visited the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, where they learned about the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, and American history. They listened as their tour guide encouraged them to vote when they turn 18.

The Blue Knights program dovetails with the department's current efforts to recruit Camden residents to join the department.

The department, created in 2013 after the former city force was disbanded, has struggled with keeping its newest recruits, many of whom have left for jobs in other towns. In recent months, department representatives have advertised information about how locals can take the civil service exam.

The department also plans to offer test preparation to interested students who age out of the Blue Knights program, as well as help with writing resumés and interview skills.

Committed to Camden

Before taking part in the program, Simpson thought she might want to become a correctional officer, like her father. The classes gave her a new understanding of what police work is like, she said.

"I want to stay in Camden and be an officer here," said Simpson, who is about to start her junior year in high school.

Verticelli said it would be ideal if some students go on to become police officers in Camden or elsewhere.

"But the kids don't all want to be cops, and that's not what this is ultimately about," he said. "In all reality, this is a way for us to connect with them, and help them become whatever they want to be."

asteele@phillynews.com 856-779-3876 @AESteele