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This week marks National Police Week, an observance signed into law by President Kennedy in 1962. Each day this week, CityBlog will have a story focusing on the Huntsville Police Department. Today: HPD’s Ranger program reaches out to young potential officers.

Juan Zapata has a book contract and a 4.0 GPA. He has the wheels in motion to obtain his U.S. citizenship and a responsibility to serve as role model for other Hispanic youngsters.

The 19-year-old Zapata also has the urge to become a police officer.

He’s well on his way – and has already opened the eyes of potential superiors – through his extraordinary work in the Huntsville Police Department’s Ranger program.

Zapata, a junior at Alabama A&M studying criminal justice, was recently named Ranger of the Year at a banquet honoring HPD officers and leaders for civic engagement.

“Juan is a good guy, very driven,” says Officer Joe Deboer, who teams with Officer Jason Moore in directing the Ranger program. “Any time we’ve put out a message that we need Rangers to work, he’s always one of the first guys to volunteer. He’s really, really smart. He’s going to do good things.”

The Ranger program is for young men and women ages 16 to 21 who want to learn the inner-workings of the police department through volunteer work and up-close observation.  (Prospective Rangers may contact Deboer or Moore through the Huntsville Police Department at (256) 746-4409.)

The Rangers do a ride-along with an active-duty officer once a month and assist in community relations events. They learn the HPD Code of Ethics, they learn the “10-Code” system used in radio calls and “do a lot of things that mold them to be a police officer,” Deboer says. “They make better candidates for police officers.”

It’s gotten me more excited about (police work). It’s good to get a sense of what you’re going to get into before you get into it. It’s a good opportunity to see if it fits.”

The Ranger program is an initiative of HPD Chief Mark McMurray.

“My number one reason for growing the Ranger program is we’re trying to put young kids in the front seat of the car so we don’t have to put them in the back seat,” McMurray says.

“Some of these folks have had bad home lives, they don’t have many good role models,” he continues. “By putting them out in the real world and showing them there are people that risk their lives for others and give them some guidance, they may end up wanting to go into law enforcement.”

While the Ranger program has been a strong feeder program for HPD – two former chiefs and current Captain Dewayne McCarver, who oversees the Police Academy are ex-Rangers – “you can’t measure its success by how many turn out to be police officers,” McMurray says.

Zapata already has another career option. He recently signed a contract to write three science fiction novels. He’s already been published in small literary magazines, but this is a significant breakthrough. The first book is entitled “Golden Skies,” in which the protagonist uses newly invented technology to rescue his hometown from his father, who is a cruel despot.

It may have a semi-autobiographical tone to it, tied to his early childhood. Zapata was witness to domestic violence committed by his biological father “and I felt powerless to help my mother,” he says. “I want to help people like my mother, people that can’t help themselves.”

Zapata moved to the U.S. 15 years ago from Monclova, Mexico, along with his mother Delicia Garcia and stepfather Luis Chairez. (Juan has two siblings, Luis Chairez and Alex Chairez.) Delicia and Luis own a video-photography business where Juan occasionally works.

After his graduation from Sparkman High, he enrolled at Alabama A&M and declared criminal justice as his major. He has excelled academically, joining several other students recently in receiving a Presidential Gold Medal for maintaining a cumulative 4.0 GPA.

As he researched opportunities for internships, he came across the Ranger program.

“It’s gotten me more excited about (police work),” he says. “It’s good to get a sense of what you’re going to get into before you get into it. It’s a good opportunity to see if it fits.”

Though Zapata was born in Mexico, “I wouldn’t call myself Mexican. I’m American.” That’ll soon become official through the naturalization process, which will be expedited if his plans to join the National Guard materialize.

However, he does see the responsibility that comes with his heritage.

“I want to be a good example to people if they see me,” he says. “You don’t see too many minorities (in law enforcement) so I hope if I do get into this job and they see a Hispanic officer it will inspire others to join the force or just take the right course in life.”