watsonville police youth academy ruben zendajas
Watsonville Police K9 officer Ruben Zendajas leads students in the WPD Youth Academy through one of several scenarios Tuesday at Pajaro Valley High School. Photo: Tarmo Hannula/The Pajaronian

Forty-three young people got a front row seat this week in what it is like to be a police officer, thanks to the second annual Watsonville Police Youth Academy.

Staged at the Pajaro Valley High campus, the free one-week course (July 10-14) is designed to educate youths, ages 14-18, about the role police play through classroom work and in-field scenarios, said Patty Mata, administrative analyst for WPD. 

Demonstrations included a high-risk car stop, K9 deployment, arrests and disarming an armed felon. They were taught about the overall operations of WPD, the history of gangs in Watsonville, traffic laws and how to use social media safely. 

Watsonville Police K9 officer Ruben Zendajas introduced his dog, Canelo, and put him through several demonstrations, including lunging into a parked vehicle to stop a person resisting arrest. Canleo, wearing a muzzle, charged into the vehicle and swiftly convinced the person—played by Sgt. Mish Radich, who was garbed in protective gear—to surrender.

Ceiba High graduate Dayana Villalpando said she was glad to have enrolled in the Academy.

“It’s fun and I’m learning a lot,” she said. “You get to learn things you’ve never had a chance to learn before.”

Aptos High junior Kevin Vargas said it was his first exposure to such training.

“It’s great and I would recommend it,” he said. “It feels good to try something new and out of my comfort zone. It really helps build discipline.”

In its second year, Mata said the Academy largely functions through donations from numerous sponsors that cover expenses, such as the participants’ uniforms, lunch each day, the closing ceremony dinner and more.

“We hope these area youths can explore police work as a possible career,” Mata said, “but also explore their own identity even further as they get to know the climate of this field.”

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Tarmo Hannula has been the lead photographer with The Pajaronian newspaper in Watsonville since 1997. More recently Good Times & Press Banner. He also reports on a wide range of topics, including police, fire, environment, schools, the arts and events. A fifth generation Californian, Tarmo was born in the Mother Lode of the Sierra (Columbia) and has lived in Santa Cruz County since the late 1970s. He earned a BA from UC Santa Cruz and has traveled to 33 countries.


  1. This is NOT ok. Watsonville has the highest rate of systematic racism in Santa Cruz County and many of people locked up in juvenile hall are from Watsonville and are Hispanic. Doing this ONLY teaches kids to become puppets for the system.

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