VASSALBORO, Maine — When Nathan Bernier was 4 years old, he knew what he wanted to do with his life. When kids would play cops and robbers, he was always a cop. So when, on Thursday, a Maine state trooper passed the now-17-year-old, Bernier looked at the man in a way only a kid can look at a superhero.
“I can’t wait to stand in that uniform right there,” he said, pointing to the trooper. “Troopers are the best of the best. You can’t get any higher in law enforcement than state trooper.”
So when the teenager told his parents he wanted to go to a 3-day Maine State Police Junior Trooper Summer Camp, his dad was less than surprised.
“He had this all mapped out by the age of 12,” dad Ray Bernier said at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy in Vassalboro. ”It didn’t change.”
Teens like Bernier are the type of person the Maine State Police are looking for. And they’ll wait.
“We have a large amount of troopers nearing retirement. We need to reach out to kids at a young age,” said Cpl. Robert Burke with the Maine State Police.
Right now, there are supposed to be 324 troopers in Maine, but there are only 290.
“We need to fill those positions, but we need the best applicants. We’d rather go shorthanded than put someone in the job that’s not ready,” Burke said. “This is a unique program in law enforcement. We’re trying to pioneer this field in recruiting young applicants. It’s been rewarding. Even in the three days [the teens are here] you can see changes in their attitude.”
This is the fourth year the state police have run the program, which is free for the teenagers. Because the organization doesn’t accept applicants younger than 21, they have not yet seen the rewards of this program; namely those teens coming back as prepared young adults ready to become troopers.
In the three days the teenagers spend at the Hogwarts-looking castle that is the police academy, they learn about ethics, fitness, crime scenes and evidence.
“We tell you to keep your nose clean and to be a good role model in your community,” Burke said.
Most crime convictions preclude people from being able to apply to be troopers.
The teenagers, their parents and troopers from 11 different specialties came together Thursday for the final day of the camp.
Grownup Greg Tewksbury, of Chesterville, wore a Bluetooth earpiece the whole day. At each station, like the underwater investigations team, the tactical unit and the K-9 unit, the dad seemed more excited than even the junior troopers — and that’s saying something.
Tewksbury and his son, 17-year-old Caleb Farrington, usually talk every day. But when Caleb went to the police academy for the three-day seminar, he sent his dad only one text message.
“AWESOME!!!” it said.
Tewksbury didn’t seem to mind being ignored.
“This is what I would have done if I’d had a positive influence as a kid,” he said as he walked to a bomb demonstration.
The dozens of troopers at the police academy are now his son’s positive influences, Tewksbury said.
“Part of this three-day training gets them to look to the future. When you go to that party, you might make different decisions if you want to be a trooper,” Tewksbury said.
He has already seen the difference in his son since the teen decided he might want to be a state trooper someday.
“Every day of his life he acts differently. He’s a positive influence on his brother.”
The youngest teen in the junior trooper program was 16-year-old Skylar Robichaud, of Gilford, who is a junior in high school. Since she was young, she knew she wanted to be in the Marines. But as she has grown up, she has had several knee surgeries, which would make it harder to get into the Marines. Now she wants to be a state trooper.
“Being here made me want to be a trooper even more,” she said. “It’s been an information-packed three days.”
One of the things the teenagers learned about was the different specialties in the Maine State Police. Although it takes three years of general experience as a trooper before someone can specialize, the program gave the teens something to aim for.
The parking lot of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy on Thursday looked sort of like a job fair. One one table sat an airplane model for the Air Wing. Under another table sat a dog from the K-9 unit. Scuba gear rested next to the dog at the Underwater Recovery Team’s table.
“That’s the cool thing about being a trooper. There are lots of different jobs and specialties,” said Underwater Recovery Team Trooper Jarod Stedman. On the other hand, he said “with state police you get home, sit with your family for dinner then your phone rings and all of a sudden you’re off to Fort Fairfield because there’s a drowning.”
Stedman told a group of teens and their parents about his job. Sometimes water is clear and they can find a possible murder weapon right away. Other times, bogs are so murky he can’t see and has to feel for what he’s looking for — which could be a dead human body.
“It’s something different every time,” he said.
As the group finished a discussion about underwater policing, Stedman told the youth to behave.
“Keep your nose clean, stay in school and maybe I’ll see you at your [Maine State Police] graduation one day.”
For more information visit maine.gov/dps/msp.