FALMOUTH — Without a doubt, the highlight of this year’s Cop Camp was a visit by a Maine Forest Service helicopter and crew, which landed on a ballfield behind central fire station Aug. 17.
The Aug. 14-18 camp was a collaboration between Falmouth Parks and Community Programs and the Portland Police Department, held at Falmouth Community Services. This summer it drew participants from several surrounding communities.
The 22 kids, all between 8 and 12 years old, hailed from Portland, Falmouth, Cumberland, Windham and Raymond.
The goal of the camp, according to organizer Coreena Behnke, is to help first-responders build relationships with the kids and show them what police and firefighters do every day.
Behnke, who is the youth services officer for the Portland PD, said the camp is also about encouraging kids to think about a career as a first-responder.
In addition to getting a visit from the Maine Forest Service, the kids also enjoyed a morning spent touring Falmouth’s central station and getting an up-close look at Portland’s fire boat.
Other activities included a visit to the Cumberland County Courthouse in downtown Portland, and visits from K-9 teams, a bomb squad and evidence technicians.
Behnke said this is the third year Falmouth has hosted the camp and it’s only grown bigger and better. The first year she said the camp was only a half-day program; now it’s a full day and incorporates several local police and fire departments.
Part of the camp is also designed to encourage the kids to stay in school and to understand the education they’ll need if they want to become part of a police or fire department.
“We tell them how important a high school diploma and a college degree are and that the most important subject is actually English,” Behnke said. “That’s because we do so much report writing and interacting with the public.”
“Being articulate is absolutely key” to the job, she added.
The best thing about Cop Camp, Behnke said, is introducing the kids to the variety of jobs available within law enforcement.
“Lots of times their knowledge is based on what they see on TV or in the media,” Behnke said. “We want to show them there are many career paths in law enforcement.”
That includes game wardens, handling evidence, working as a paramedic, training for specialty units, or working at a courthouse, she said.
Of the 22 participants in the camp, Behnke said four of them were girls, which was encouraging, but she’d like to see more girls sign up for the camp.
About half of the kids, she said, are already saying they want to be a police officer or firefighter.
For the kids, Behnke said the best part about the Cop Camp is the hands-on learning and “integrating the fire departments has been great for that.”
Climbing through the smoke trailer and into the ladder truck at Falmouth’s central fire station last week, for example, are always big hits.
Behnke has been a police officer for the past 20 years and said in that time so much has changed about law enforcement that she can’t imagine what the job will entail when the participants in Cop Camp are ready to join the workforce.
“I’ve seen such a major shift over my career,” she said, “especially in the calls for service.”
With the opioid crises, Behnke said the focus is now more on getting people the help they need. “It’s shifted from being punitive to rehabilitative,” she said.
Howard Rice, Falmouth’s fire chief, said his staff thoroughly enjoys spending a couple days each summer with the Cop Camp kids.
“It’s good for recruiting and we also get a chance to teach the kids what they can do themselves in an emergency situation,” he said.
Rice agreed with Behnke that much has changed regarding what’s required of first responders these days.
“It is a physical job, but there’s a lot more to it. You’ve got to be smart, too,” he said.
But, “anyone can do it if they’re not afraid of the hard work involved,” Rice added.
Kerra Brown, who took part in this year’s Cop Camp hosted by Falmouth Parks and Community Programs and the Portland Police Department, gets a close look at fingerprints.
Steven Stubbs, a police officer in Windham, introduces Cop Camp participants to his K-9, Vader, last week.
Members of the Falmouth Fire Department hosted kids taking part in the local Cop Camp during a visit to central station last week.