Law enforcement program aims to keep teens on the right track

Jul. 30, 2014 @ 05:00 AM

A group of local high school students touring the Lee County Sheriff's Office on Monday have dreams like going to college to study fashion or medicine, becoming sports stars and opening up businesses.

But standing in the way of their goals are a range of obstacles, from disciplinary issues to substance abuse and incarcerated or absent parents.

So on Tuesday, the students visited Butner Correctional Institute, a federal prison near Durham, for a scared-straight tour of the facilities. Also this week, they're speaking with local attorneys and judges, watching a K-9 team demonstration and even taking a shot at the test required to become a police officer.

Maj. Carlton Lyles said he hopes they remember what they learn this week, even if they might not value it right away.

"Growing up, we hated the police," Lyles told the group frankly. "Sho'nuff, I became what I hated."

He said he used to think African-American males like himself were "getting a raw deal" from authorities. The teens perked up, asking Lyles what he and his friends used to call cops and comparing that to current slang. He played along, but even still his message was clear: Law enforcement officers shouldn't be seen as the bad guys, even though that's how many young people often view them.

He said that he has now seen the system from the inside — in fact, he's one of the highest-ranking officials in Lee County, directing all field operations conducted by the sheriff's office — and he knows that officers sign up because they want to do good, not because they want to go around arresting and oppressing people.

The young men and women were on this tour through a school-ordered program for students with disciplinary issues. They're not necessarily in the justice system themselves, but they were all familiar with it. During a break Monday they looked through the sheriff's blog and found mugshots of friends, classmates and relatives. Some said their fathers are absent, in jail or have issues with DWIs.

But Lyles told them that even if they do run afoul of the law, they're young enough to get back on the right path and not ruin their future.

"You might make mistakes, but you ain't the mistake you made," he said. "You've got to get past it. If you keep making the same mistake, you ain't learning."

Another deputy, Sgt. Dana Elliott, told the teens that he and other officers are far more interested in helping them than arresting them. He passed out contact information and told them to take his promise seriously.

"If you're out with a group of people and you feel like it's a dangerous situation, give us a call," he said. "We'll come pick you up."

Lyles also told them to stay away from questionable people and situations. With the state's new self-defense rules, he said, it's increasingly easy to get killed while committing crimes, even non-violent ones.

"If you're on their property breaking into anything, they can shoot you and they won't be charged," Lyles said.

Sheriff Tracy Carter said Monday his office is working hard to curb the number of crimes committed by young people. He said prevention is the best plan, and that one way to turn people away from crime is to reach them at school. His office now has a fully trained student resource officer on every campus in the county. Four of the SROs, Carter said, have also gone above and beyond to receive specialized training to detect and counsel students headed in the wrong direction.

"It's called GREAT — Gang Resistant Education And Training," Carter said. "And it's going to help them talk to kids not only who are in gangs, but who are involved in drugs and alcohol, too."