POLICE ACADEMY: HALFWAY THERE - The Explorer: Import

POLICE ACADEMY: HALFWAY THERE

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Posted: Wednesday, November 7, 2001 12:00 am | Updated: 7:46 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

They've stuck together in their pursuit of careers as Oro Valley cops, as they were told they must.

They've endured training officers screaming in their faces and the physical and academic challenges thrown in their way at Tucson Public Safety Academy's Southern Arizona Law Enforcement Training Center and they haven't buckled.

Yet.

More than half way through now, six recruits, comprising the largest single class Oro Valley has ever sent to the academy at one time, are on the verge of making quite a mark for themselves as recruits from other agencies fall by the wayside.

Fifty-seven recruits from various agencies started out Sept. 3 in the same class the Oro Valley recruits are in. Eleven have since dropped out, including four of 15 Tucson Police Department recruits and two of 12 from the Pima County Sheriff's Department, either failing to meet the academy's tough requirements or deciding for whatever reason that life as a cop was not for them.

The Oro Valley recruits have survived as a unit, bolstered by the daily encouragement of one another, the frequent study group meetings on their own each Saturday before taking one of the nine major tests they must pass during their 16 weeks of training, and the unprecedented weeklong grooming by the Oro Valley Police Department before their entry into the academy.

"The week Oro Valley officers spent with us really got us prepared," and getting to know your fellow recruits was a big help as well, said Heidi Hardman, 25, a former corrections officer with the Salt Lake City, Utah Sheriff's Office and the oldest member of the Oro Valley class. "In training, having someone there you know really helps."

In large part due to the pre-academy training, there have been few surprises for the recruits.

Just getting accepted for the academy was no walk in the park, however. The application form alone was nearly 20 pages. Then there was a screening process through an oral board, psychological testing, a polygraph test and final screening by Oro Valley Police Department administrators.

Before entering the academy, all the recruits shuddered at the prospect of being the targets of training officers yelling in their faces and questioned their own abilities and standing up to the stress.

And though their livelihood, their lifetime dreams of being a cop are on the line, few are feeling the stresses in terms of the yelling to the same extent any more. It also helps that there is far less of it these days as the recruits advance to taking on new challenges during their typical day from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

There are different kinds of stresses now as they advance into more of what are known as practicals, hands-on applications of what they've learned in the classroom through scenarios in such areas as domestic disputes, searches and seizures, traffic stops, defensive techniques, routine patrol and observation, crowd and riot control, bomb threats, disaster response, first aid, accident investigation and high-chase pursuits.

In the classroom they are being tutored in a wide range of areas including report writing, constitutional and criminal law, liquor laws, Arizona's revised statutes, motor vehicle laws, social psychology and mental illness and rules of evidence.

The thing about the practicals, said Chris Palic, 22, a former punter on the UA football team, is that they provide a non-threatening environment in which to learn by being critiqued on what you've done wrong in the handling of a certain incident.

"They make it as real as they can," because on the street in real life there might not be the opportunity to do so, Palic said. It is what makes the practicals both challenging and satisfying in terms of how much you can learn, he said.

"You may know the rationale of something academically, but the practicals give you a chance to apply the law practically," Hardman agreed,

Palic looks at every day of the practicals as a good day because they're productive.

"I'm learning something new all the time," Palic said. "Bad things are bound to happen, but you don't harp on these things."

A major focus of Palic's is his continual development of interpersonal skills, the ability to communicate and sympathize with the person in pain, to think on his feet and be able to apply the skills he's developed to face any situation as it arises.

"I'm just trying to improve, not focus on any one area," echoed Garrett Ryan, another UA grad who has a brother that is the chief of police in the small town of St. Francis, Kan. "I don't want to be one dimensional. There's always room for improvement."

Ryan said the only thing that's surprised him in terms of the training thus far has been the quality and the amount of knowledge being imparted. Otherwise, "it's about what I expected," he said. "I was prepared for it."

Among the activities Ryan looks forward to most are team-building exercises that build on communications and interpersonal skills, everybody helping each other make the grade and doing anything that can be done to make the entire class of recruits a more cohesive unit.

"There's just no room to coast or feel down on yourself," Ryan said. "There are just so many hours in the day. I can honestly say that I can improve in all areas so I know I can't be complacent or raise one area over another. I do what I'm told and stay ready for anything."

Through the course of their 16 weeks of training the recruits will take nine separate tests. If they fail one, they can take a remedial, pass and continue, fail another, take a remedial, pass and continue. If they fail any of the remedials, they're out. If they fail to qualify in the use of the handgun used by the agency they're representing, they're out, and if they don't qualify in night shooting or use of the shotgun, they're out as well.

For the past five weeks the recruits have been having firearms training at least once a week for four hours at a time.

Hardman, who has been chosen as one of five squad leaders in her class, places common sense among the highest prerequisites for trainees.

"The academy training, the verbal abuse, the practicals, dealing with these things, it all comes down to using common sense," she said. Her education, including a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from Weber State University and a minor in psychology, are major factors in being able to apply that common sense.

Hardman said she's getting better in the firearms training, but still is concerned because it's an area she didn't have to deal with as a corrections officer.

She noted that she went through a qualifying course recently, however, and did well.

Kristine Filippelli, 24, said the firearms training also has been the toughest for her because it's such a high stress activity.

"I realize I'm not perfect and I make things harder on myself," she said, noting that she believes she's improving as well.

How well Hardman believes she's doing can be put in perspective by what she described as her worst day.

It occurred on a Monday in the third week of training when she forgot her uniform half way on her drive to the academy and had to go home to get it. She got to the academy on time, but was late because she had to change. Hardman said she took a bit of a razzing for the incident, but was harder on herself for her forgetfulness than the trainers were on her.

All of Oro Valley's recruits except for Filippelli have had at least some previous contact with law enforcement. Hardman as a corrections officer; Palic as an intern with the Pima County Juvenile Court's Intensive Probation Supervision program, assisting probation officers in serving warrants, making arrests and checking records; UA grad Jeffrey Wadleigh, 23, as an intern with Oro Valley police detectives; Ryan, through his brother's experiences as a police chief; UA grad Leigh Horetski through her work as a records clerk in the Oro Valley Police Department and two brothers now on the Oro Valley police force.

Among the most enjoyable side aspects of the training, recruits seemed to agree, are the classes allowing them to sit down for a change, the chance to drive as fast as they want during exercises on the academy instructional driving track, and the extensive amount of study time they're given, an element that did surprise many of Oro Valley's recruits.

From now on, said Hardman, it's just a matter of taking a deep breath and preparing for the final run to graduation.

The current training facility for recruits at 10001 S. Wilmot Road replaced what was the Arizona Law Enforcement Training Academy about four years ago and was financed by a Tucson bond issue in the early 1990s. The older facility, now used by the Arizona Department of Corrections, once provided housing onsite for recruits, but quit doing so when it became too expensive.

Dorms at the new academy were opened in September of this year, but are limited to recruits representing agencies 35 miles a way or more, including Douglas, Cochise County, Nogales and Graham County.

Recruits interviewed from the Oro Valley class spoke of time constraints in terms of learning all they needed to know, but most agencies would like to have them learn even more, said Bob Easton, head of Oro Valley Police Department's Office of Professional Development.

Given a perfect world and all the money needed, it would probably take a year-round academy to meet various departmental training demands, Easton said. And neither any agency nor the academy is going to provide that kind of time, he said.

Increased training time, however, becomes a greater necessity as law enforcement agencies try to respond to the mandates of the courts in such areas as cultural diversity and profiling and the new threats facing society such as terrorism and bioterrorism, he said.

Easton predicted that it won't be long before agencies are asking the academy to expand its curriculum to include the training to deal with these latest threats.

Back in the 1970s, when three police officers were killed in a California shootout, it was discovered that they were following training practices - nationally common at that time - which required them to pocket empty brass casings prior to reloading and continuing to fire. Training procedures had to be revised, Easton said.

Similar problems arose in another case because of training procedures that had officers holstering their weapons before assessing a scene for any potential dangers, he said.

Easton pointed to these areas as examples of a need for an ever-evolving training regimen and the importance of refining current training procedures to avoid repeating past mistakes.

In the process of preparing articles on the Oro Valley recruits, a reporter was introduced to members of the class. Each was asked if they'd be willing to take part in interviews, which were to be totally voluntary, and all agreed.

Interviews were then held and the first of what is planned as a three-part series appeared in the Northwest EXPLORER Sept. 5.

On Oct. 23, Easton sent a memo to the recruits reminding them of a schedule for follow-up interviews. Again Easton reminded them it was voluntary: "However, I hope you each will consider the value of this as a community interest project for the town and the department," Easton wrote.

Unfortunately, two of the six, Horteski and Wadleigh, have chosen to withdraw from the project. No reason was given in either case.

Maybe it's just stress, they've got a lot on the line, an academy spokesman said.

There's more ahead as the recruits enter the stretch run to graduation on Dec. 21.

Twenty-seven recruits applied, only 17 remained by the written exam. A final culling reduced the number from 11 to six.

"It takes a certain fire in the eyes," to succeed here, said Lt. Les Anderson, one of the academy's training officers.

"The recruits from Oro Valley are doing well," Anderson said. "It's a good group, well grounded."

But he and other academy trainers continue to look to see the fire in the eyes doesn't burn out.

© 2014 The Explorer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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