How a suburban teen's path to a possible law enforcement career is starting at the top

It's not unusual for children of police officers to consider following their parents' footsteps into the family business.

But it's not every day that the career path starts at the top.

That's where 16-year-old Madison Hecker will find herself this summer, when the junior-to-be at Warren Township High School in Gurnee packs up and travels to the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia.

Madison, who lives in Wadsworth, is one of just 60 teens from across the world accepted into this year's FBI National Academy Associates' Youth Leadership Program.

During the intensive eight-day program run by law enforcement training instructors, Madison and her classmates will take leadership courses, undergo physical fitness training, meet with FBI special agents and get an inside look at the agency's operations.

Madison is up for all of it.

"I think it will give me a better idea of what (the FBI) is like and give me a better opportunity to be a part of it in the future," Madison told us this week. "I'm looking forward to growing my leadership qualities and participating in an obstacle course they have there called 'The Yellow Brick Road.' I'm really interested in meeting with the agents to see what it's like being part of the FBI."

Madison's journey to the all-expenses-paid experience actually began two years ago, when she first applied for the program. She wasn't selected, but she didn't give up.

The process - which includes filling out a lengthy application and writing an essay about leadership - ended with an interview conducted by FBI reps at the Hoffman Estates Police Department. The first of 26 candidates interviewed over two days, Madison was the only one accepted into the program.

Among the questions: What's the role of law enforcement in the 21st century?

"I answered that the role of the police and the FBI in the 21st century involves a lot of building trust with the public and improving the diversity within police (ranks)," she said.

What's next in her path to a possible law enforcement career? Madison said she's especially interested in forensic psychology - understanding why criminals do the things they do - but she hasn't zeroed in on that as her only option.

Whatever she chooses, her parents couldn't be much prouder. Her mom, Chrissy Hecker, has been a probation officer in Lake County for more than two decades, and her dad, Josh Hecker, is a lieutenant with the Kenosha Police Department.

Besides earning her way into the prestigious FBI program, Madison is a straight-A student, competes on Warren's varsity track team and is a member of the school's Devilettes dance squad.

"It was truly amazing, because she did a lot of hard work for this, and her paper about leadership was incredible," Chrissy Hecker said. "She's just a very focused young lady. I can't say enough about her."

McHenry County's top cop

Helping save a life would make for a banner year for any law enforcement officer. Doing it twice in a year is the kind of stuff for which they hand out awards.

So it was earlier this month, when Algonquin police Sgt. Robert Salazar was named 2020 Officer of the Year by the McHenry County Chiefs of Police Association.

Algonquin police Sgt. Robert Salazar, left, was joined by Chief John Bucci when he was named 2020 McHenry County Officer of the Year earlier this month. Courtesy of the McHenry County Chiefs of Police

Salazar, a 23-year veteran of the village's police force, twice last year intervened to prevent suicidal people from harming themselves.

The first involved a man armed with a gun and threatening to shoot himself at a village park. Salazar talked him into giving up his weapon. Police arranged for the man to receive mental health services afterward.

The second involved a man armed with a knife threatening suicide while in a parked vehicle. Salazar was able to reach him by phone and spoke with him for an hour, ultimately persuading the man to surrender himself to officers.

"We are very proud of the compassion and professionalism displayed by Sgt. Salazar during two separate incidents, where individuals clearly needed help," Algonquin Chief John Bucci told us this week. "Subjects that have made suicidal statements are always dangerous calls to respond to, and it is always the goal to be able to show the individual that suicide is not the answer."

Others nominated for the award this year included Cary officer Joseph Fiore, Lake in the Hills officer Eric Lee, McHenry County sheriff's Lt. John Miller and deputies Keith Sosnowski and Nick Clesceri, and Woodstock officer Charles Vorderer.

Worrying trend

It's perhaps a consequence of all the extra screen time kids have had over the past 14 months, but state law enforcement leaders shared some troubling news Thursday about a rise in online predators.

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul said his office has seen a rise in reports of possible child sexual exploitation cases. Capitol News Illinois file photo

Attorney General Kwame Raoul said he expects a 16% increase in reports through the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children of possible child sexual exploitation crimes this year. The center, which forwarded 5,184 reports in 2020, serves as a national clearinghouse for public and electronic service providers to report online exploitation.

"Over the last year, investigators with the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force have been busier than ever as they fulfill our commitment to protect children when they are online," Raoul said.

Raoul's office attributed the increase to multiple factors, including an increase in reports from Snapchat and Instagram involving youths sharing minors' self-produced content. The task force also saw an increase in people posting material containing child sexual abuse content in an attempt to raise public awareness.

Since 2006, the task force has been involved in more than 1,780 arrests of sexual predators and provided internet safety training and education to more than 953,500 parents, teachers and students, and more than 23,100 law enforcement professionals, officials say.

To report suspected online child sexual exploitation, contact your local police department or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children CyberTipline at 1-800-THE-LOST.

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