Officers pull back curtain on police work for 'Rising Stars'

Jul. 31, 2013 @ 05:00 AM

Seven local teens are getting a firsthand look at the criminal justice system during a summer program that wraps up today.

The group had a diverse range of ages and backgrounds, with Hispanic, white and black boys and girls ranging from 13 to 17 participating in the two-day program. They gathered at the Lee County Sheriff's Office on Tuesday to learn more about the people and procedures involved in law enforcement before gearing up for tours of local and federal prison facilities. After a lunch break, deputy Justin Matthews focused on safe, sober driving.

"My passion is stopping DWI," Matthews said. "A lot of these kids are about to start driving, so I want to get that in their heads."

He showed the teens pictures from several DUI and DWI wrecks he has responded to, including images of a mangled white sedan wrapped around a tree near the intersection of Tramway Road and St. Andrews Church Road.

Then, he shocked them.

"I held my best friend's hand as he died," Matthews told the suddenly quiet group when the pictures of that crumpled white car were displayed, explaining that witnesses said his friend was driving about 100 miles per hour, under the influence, when he hit the tree and was ejected.

But there were also lighter moments, like when the participants put on goggles that Matthews said simulate having somewhere between a 0.07 and 0.11 blood-alcohol content, straddling the line of being able to legally operate a vehicle. While everyone else laughed and egged them on, they tried to walk a straight line or balance on one leg. Matthews said every one of them would've failed a sobriety test.

They all said the goggles and sobriety tests were their favorite part of the day thus far, and that their eyes had been opened by everything they did and saw.

"I liked to learn how bad drinking and driving was, and how many fatalities it causes in North Carolina," said 15-year-old Jose Andino.

Getting that idea across was one of the goals of the Rising Stars program, which has hosted a handful of teens from the Boys and Girls Clubs of Sanford/Lee County every summer since 2007, said Maj. Carlton Lyles. But it wasn't the main focus.

Lyles, a former student resource officer who now directs field operations for the sheriff's office and also helps facilitate this program, said an objective is to let young people know that law enforcement officers aren't the enemy.

"A lot of kids have bad pictures of law enforcement, so we want to let them get to know us," Lyles said. "... We want them to see that we're human, too."

Some of the teens said they'd thought law enforcement usually acts out of meanness, but they now realized that often, people get locked up because the officers who arrest them want to protect others. Lyles said just being able to explain that concept is a huge boon.

"It's not a very easy job," he said. "It's not a job people thank you for."

He also said it's important that the group sees and hears from the other side. So they visit both the Lee County Jail and the nearby Butner Federal Correctional Complex, touring the general population and speaking at length with an inmate or two.

"They come back and say, 'Wow, that person was for real,'" Lyles said, adding that facilitators don't want the visits to turn into just another scared-straight program, but that hearing about prison and jail from actual inmates will do a lot more to convince the teens to stay away from crime than anything he can tell them.

Four of the seven teens raised their hands when asked if they had ever had personal experiences with law enforcement before. Asked if those experiences were good or bad, one said bad and the rest nodded in agreement. But 17-year-old James Ray said he wants to go into law enforcement himself. And 15-year-old Destiny Redding said some of her favorite parts of the day had been learning about fingerprinting and other forensics, as well as generally getting to know more about how law enforcement works.

"I wanted to learn how there's more than just pulling people over," she said. "How [officers] get treated, and all that stuff, I didn't know."

This year's participants were James Ray, Destiny Redding, Damien Lee, Jose Andino, Ashley Barker, Josh Hooker and Joshua Cameron.