July 7, 2022


Benefits of a Youth Leadership Academy

By Rex Sorrow

A group photo of the participants in the youth leadership program.

Most agencies, including my own, have seen a steady decrease in law enforcement applicants over the last several years. What if you could change this statistic by hiring young adults from the community who have already invested time in your agency? What if they praised your department for teaching them valuable lessons they can take into adulthood? It may seem like an overwhelming task at first, but organizing a youth leadership academy can help with hiring and more for years to come.

Of course, incorporating a youth leadership academy will not staff an entire agency because results take time, but it can benefit a department beyond recruiting. Such a program will allow agencies to see an increase in young people understanding what officers experience daily and the reasons behind their split-second decision-making.

Actual events of an incident are often misconstrued, either because of social media or insufficient or inaccurate facts, so it is important for the public to understand the difference between perception and reality in law enforcement. Increasing awareness will also help build stronger community support and bridge the gap between law enforcement and youth.

Cullman County, Alabama, Sheriff Matt Gentry believes youths are our most precious asset. He believes in investing time in children because they will become our community’s future officers, attorneys, doctors, nurses, teachers, and judges. In 2015, Sheriff Gentry tasked me with organizing a youth leadership academy to provide teenagers an understanding of the importance of leadership, patriotism, respect, and decision-making based upon his guiding principles of honor, courage, and integrity.

Lieutenant Rex Sorrow

Lieutenant Sorrow serves with the Cullman County, Alabama, Sheriff’s Office and is a graduate of FBI National Academy Session 280.

I met with two Cullman County Board of Education career coaches to discuss ideas, student itineraries, potential issues, and requirements for the academy. In 2016, with help from a deputy and investigator at our department, we offered the first Cullman County Sheriff’s Youth Leadership Academy. Twelve students enrolled in the class, and since then, the program has grown significantly, with a record attendance of 44 in 2019.


Each youth leadership academy student is between 16 and 18 years old and has a form of dependable and insured transportation to move freely between the program’s events and activities.

All students must read the classic Civil War novel The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara and submit a book report about the leadership styles presented.1


Cullman County’s summer weeklong youth academy consists of various leadership and team-building activities and events.

  • Physical training (e.g., rock wall climbing, rappelling, self-defense classes, zip lining)
  • Hands-on training (e.g., fingerprinting, crime scene reconstruction, shoot-no shoot scenarios)
  • Classroom training (e.g., leadership etiquette, American flag history, death investigation)
  • Team competitions (e.g., paintball battles, ropes courses, gladiator pit)
  • SWAT, K-9, and live fire range demonstrations
  • Guest speakers
  • Tours of the Cullman County Sheriff’s Office and local jail


Youth leadership academy students experience team-building skills while overcoming their fears in the face of diversity. They learn how the Cullman County Sheriff’s Office strives to provide efficient and professional law enforcement while serving its citizens. Students also learn the importance of taking pride in their homes, family, and community.2

Each student receives a course manual, two T-shirts, an identification card, and daily free lunches.

The program is free, and all graduates receive a certificate of completion, 40 hours of community service credit, and the opportunity to do a ride-along with a deputy.

“Youth leadership academy students experience team-building skills while overcoming their fears in the face of diversity.”

A photo collage of youth participating in activities at the youth leadership program hosted by the Cullman County, Alabama, Sheriff's Office.


Since the program’s inception, the Cullman County Sheriff’s Youth Leadership Academy has led to three new hires for our department: two dispatchers (recently promoted to shift supervisors) and one detention deputy who works in the jail and plans to attend the next law enforcement academy to become a state-certified patrol deputy.

The benefits far outweigh the costs of a youth leadership academy. It can help with recruiting, raising awareness, and strengthening community relationships. The requirements, itinerary, and incentives for Cullman County’s academy outlined in this article have proven successful for our department and community, but to reap the same benefits, another agency may need to  structure its program differently according to its size, resources, and/or needs.

For more information on developing a youth leadership academy, please contact Lieutenant Sorrow at rsorrow@cullmansheriff.org to discuss how this program can work for your agency.


1 Michael Shaara, The Killer Angels (New York: McKay, 1974).
2 Cullman County Sheriff’s Office, “Sheriff’s Youth Leadership Academy,” accessed June 27, 2022, https://cullmansheriff.org/sheriffs-youth-leadership-academy/.