The Fort Worth, Texas, Police Department recently launched a new criminal justice program alongside the city’s Independent School District (ISD) in hopes to attract a new generation of law enforcement officers.
One young lady interested in the career path is South Hills High School junior Lili Hernandez, who has harbored a dream to become a police officer since childhood — her goal being to make a difference in her city and forge stronger bonds between her community and law enforcement.
Hernandez, 16, specifically hopes to change the prevailing negative perceptions of police officers and law enforcement in general.
“People see cops as bad people. They think, ‘Oh, it’s 12,’” Hernandez said. “But I would hope I could improve their visions on police officers and anybody that works in law enforcement.”
Hernandez is part of the Fort Worth ISD’s criminal justice program, in which authorities hope to nurture future police officers from the local community by exposing teens to various aspects of the profession.
Collaborating closely with the Fort Worth Police Department, the district aims to provide students with an in-depth understanding of the field of law enforcement.
Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker praised the collaboration as a way for students to communicate their neighborhood experiences and perceptions of policing.
“We want homegrown heroes in our community, whether they’re civilians or they’re wearing a badge. This is just the first class, and I think opportunities are endless for us in this program,” she said.
The inaugural class comprises more than two dozen juniors and seniors, who will receive training from the Fort Worth Police Department while attending criminal justice classes.
On Mondays through Thursdays, students will spend half of their day at the Bob Bolen Public Safety Complex.
Fort Worth Officer Tracy Carter, who works in the program, was proud of the results so far.
“We’re going to have 30 kids walking our campuses. We’re very proud of this,” Carter told NBCDFW.
David Saenz, the district’s chief of Strategic Initiatives and Partnerships, said the program will offer Fort Worth ISD students access to diverse career pathways.
“You have to connect the pipelines now for our students and show them that there are these opportunities for them here in their hometown,” he said.
Initially, only students from South Hills High School and Eastern Hills High School are participating in the program. However, the district plans to extend the program to other Fort Worth ISD high schools in the future.
During an event held on August 29, students had the opportunity to interact with Fort Worth Police Chief Neil Noakes and asked him questions about his own unexpected journey into law enforcement.
Chief Noakes, who joined the police department in 2000, shared his own experiences and spoke about the value that these students could bring to the Fort Worth Police Department.
“Our goal is to connect with you, to learn from you and find out how we can better engage with you wherever it is you decide you want to go,” Noakes told the students.
While recognizing that not all students aspire to be police officers, Chief Noakes encouraged them to explore adjacent fields such as forensic science or become victim assistance advocates.
He also stressed the department’s commitment to connecting with and learning from students, regardless of their career choices.
“Our goal is to connect with you, to learn from you and find out how we can better engage with you wherever it is you decide you want to go,” Noakes said.
As for Hernandez, her post-high school plans remain uncertain. She is considering both a career in law enforcement and serving in the military.