Typical. That word really does not apply to a traffic stop. Regardless of what we – the drivers – think of them, for a police officer, approaching a car in such a situation is anything but typical. No matter how the traffic stop begins, any number of possibilities can occur to change things in an instant. And no two stops are the same. This semester, Roselle Park High School (RPHS) Seniors got to find out what it felt like.
‘Police and Teens Together’ is a program that Roselle Park Police Department (RPPD) Captain Daniel McCaffery began teaching originally over a decade ago in 2002 and RPPD has brought the program back this year with the assistance of School Superintendent Pedro Garrido along with Karen Positan from the Union County Prosecutor’s Office. The program is intended to allow for a dialogue between teenagers and police officers in order to give students a better viewpoint of how and why police officers do certain things during traffic stops and patrols. The program consists of several classroom sessions followed by a training scenario where students assume the role of officers and actually conduct simulated traffic stops with RPPD officers playing the role of the motorist.
“This realistic scenario is really an eye-opener for the students, and puts a lot of things in perspective,” Capt McCaffery stated, “We wanted to students to see how they, acting as the police, are required to maintain control of the situation, keep themselves as well as their partner safe, follow current use of force laws, and project a positive image.”
Students from RPHS teacher John Ranieri’s Physical Education class took part in the program. For the simulation 10 of them – Joe Fulinello, Nick Muccia, Laura Ventura, Alexis Castillo, Randy Luc, Joe Duffy, Charlie Negron, Kenny Arvelaez, Kevin Angus, and James Manzo – suited up with jackets, bulletproof vests, belts, and non-working training pistols. Having the scenario start with each team of two getting out the police vehicle, they approached a stopped car with RPPD officers Harms and Wintermute playing the roles of driver and passenger respectively. Time after time, well-meaning ‘officers’ saw their situation spiral out of control and end, almost without exception, in them or their partners being fired upon.
“During the simulation, I approached the car nervous and not knowing what was going to happen,” Nick Muccia stated, “The situation escalated out of control very quickly. I felt privileged to take part in the program and being able to experience this, especially since I plan on going into this field.”
RPHS Senior Laura Ventura added, “Prior to this program, most students thought that police would stop people for no reason. We now view each stop as potential danger for the police officer. Basically, we have a new-found respect for police officers and their responsibility to keep our roads safe.”
Other seniors got to witness firsthand how fast things can escalate, making the traffic stop difficult to watch because it made them anxious or nervous about the situation. In the end, Captain McCaffery’s intent to have teenagers have a better understanding was acknowledged by a statement from Joe Fulinello who said, “The police program was an excellent experience for all of us. We were afforded the opportunity to learn that police officers are ordinary people with a difficult job to ensure our safety.”
Captain McCaffery stated that, based on the positive feedback from students and staff, RPPD will be planning on hosting more training sessions with additional students in the spring.