TAMPA - Ivonne Alvarado is only 17, but she's already seen C4 explosives detonate, learned karate moves and knows what a car chase feels like.
Spending six weeks with Tampa police officers who gave her a first-hand look at these situations also gave Alvarado something unexpected.
"There's honestly a lot of misconceptions about police officers," she said. "We got an inside look at what they do and how they think. They're not bad people. They're actually here to help you."
Alvarado was one of 19 high school-age students who graduated Wednesday from the Tampa Police Department's first Teen Citizens Academy.
The department hosts two adult citizens academies a year but decided to expand the program this year to younger volunteers.
The teen academy was designed to "build bridges between law enforcement and youth," said police Sgt. Samuel Rojka. "We hope we made a positive influence on their lives."
The students, ages 15-19, were selected because of their limited exposure to the law enforcement field, said officer Kimberly Hill, who oversaw the teen academy.
Officers guided the trainees through real-life situations such as traffic stops, car chases and self-defense courses.
Alvarado and her friends rode in the back of police cruisers as officers showed them special moves used in chases and learned that solving crimes takes plenty of patience and paperwork.
"Crimes are not solved in 30 minutes with commercial breaks," Police Chief Jane Castor told the graduating class. "It's much harder than people think."
The 20 graduates were honored in a ceremony Wednesday at the department's downtown headquarters. Castor presented them with a certificate, a department pin and a commemorative coin. Each graduate also received a tablet computer, purchased using seized drug money.
Jay Spivey, 19, said he was leaning toward a career in politics before attending the academy. Now he's thinking of becoming a police officer. "I look at police officers from a different perspective now," he said. "I have way more respect for them."