Five- and six-year-old campers squealed and giggled as they were licked by Kenny, a golden retriever who happens to be a member of the Darien Police Department’s K-9 Unit.
“I like it because the dogs are really fluffy, and they’re really big,” Alejandro, 5, said.
Officers chuckled at the scene unfolding at Hartford’s Camp Courant as part of its annual Law Enforcement Day on Wednesday. “Let them think they’re cute and fluffy,” one policeman said, as barks sounded from other police dogs.
About 25 police departments from across Connecticut descended on the open fields and sports complexes, eager to meet with 600 Hartford youth, all of whom are eligible to attend the summer day camp in Farmington for free.
“It’s all about education and building communities,” said Jessica Hinman, the director of community outreach and special events at Camp Courant. “We want kids to know they can trust law enforcement. It is so critical, especially in the last few years.”
The event is sponsored by the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, and Hinman said this year marked the biggest turnout — complete with crime scene stations, a hostage negotiator van and specialized SWAT team gear to pique campers’ curiosity.
At lunchtime, officers joined the campers, ages 5 through 12, at picnic tables, munching on hotdogs and hamburgers provided by Highland Park Market. Some law enforcement officials even served the barbecue meal in two assembly lines, ensuring kids grabbed water bottles to stay hydrated.
During one activity, Tomei, a counselor-in-training, tried on a bulletproof vest after climbing out of an armored BearCat vehicle. Dave Williams, a training officer for the Manchester Police Department, pointed out where his rifle and other equipment would rest in the camouflage holster.
“It shows you the stuff they do is real,” Tomei, 14, said. “It’s not just TV.”
Williams said he loved telling campers about his job — and letting them know police officers do far more than make arrests. Even the people who are pulled over, Williams was quick to share, aren’t necessarily “bad guys.”
“Kids are the starting point for everything,” Williams said. “The better relationship we have now, the better relationship we’ll have in the future.”
Thomas Richard rode his motorcycle up from Trumbull police department and parked it alongside bikes emblazoned with logos for Glastonbury, Wethersfield and South Windsor, among other towns. The metal was too hot for campers to sit on at noon, but he proudly indicated the gearshift and the pedals where he puts his “big feet.”
“I think being on a motorcycle, you’re a little more approachable,” Richard, of the Trumbull Police Department, said.
Blaring sirens — alongside flashing blue and red lights — steadily echoed throughout the camp grounds. At one zone near the entrance, a group of boys eagerly waited for their turn to ride in an all-terrain vehicle, its rear doors removed to ease the ebb and flow of passengers.
“It was really fun,” Yomar, 12, said after cruising through a parking lot. “The car went really fast.”
His only complaint, he said, was the “really tight” harness.
Connecticut State Police Sgt. Anthony Sciarretto enjoyed driving with carloads of campers, who cheered loudly whenever he honked the horn.
“It’s awesome to give back to the kids,” he said.