Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Police rookies are moving to the streets

Trainees apply academy lessons to driving, shooting and investigating

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Brian Lewis⁄The Gazette
Members of the lateral graduation class pledge the oath to the Montgomery County Police Department during a ceremony March 13. Go online for more about the 11 members of this class and the graduation.
Speeding and spinning out are natural stops along the road to a badge for the men and women training to become Montgomery County Police officers.

‘‘They have to find their limitations,” Officer Fernando Carvajal, a driving instructor at the county’s police academy, said last month as his recruits geared up to test their skills behind the wheel. ‘‘If they lose control, I’d rather they do it here than on [Route] 355.”

The police officer candidates of Session No. 52 at the Public Safety Training Academy in Rockville have spent the last several months practicing calling for backup, learning the law and memorizing radio codes. Now, they’re learning how to apply those concepts on the beat.

Last month, the rookies began three weeks of rotations, where they were immersed in the specific skill sets they will use in day-to-day policing. The 46 recruits — down from 57 with the graduation of the academy’s accelerated class for candidates with prior policing experience — were divided into three groups that each spent one week mastering driving, shooting and investigating crime scenes.

The investigations unit was a favorite for candidate Chris Hendrix, who graduated from St. Mary’s College of Maryland in December with a degree in history education. He briefly considered becoming a teacher but always wanted to become a police officer.

‘‘There’s never a dull moment,” Hendrix, 22, of Poolesville said of his time in the academy. ‘‘I look forward to waking up. You never know what’s going to happen.”

In investigations, the recruits learn what evidence to look for and how it should be collected and recorded. They also dust for prints on a variety of surfaces.

Training gets more hands-on during driving, but the course still begins in the classroom where they learn about steering techniques and police policy — subject matter they will be tested on later. Next is the skid pan, an asphalt lot coated with an oily solution where recruits practice driving in slippery conditions, followed by an obstacle course marked with traffic cones. The vehicles, Ford Crown Victorias and Chevrolet Impalas, are former patrol cars that are still safe but no longer fit for the road.

‘‘Any fool can step on the gas and go fast — that’s not what good driving is about,” said Carvajal, who used to work in the county’s Collision Reconstruction Unit. The recruits drive in rain, sleet and snow, and they also practice at night to make the scenarios as realistic as possible.

The final driving test is a role-playing exercise. The recruits must chase an instructor around the academy’s driving course — a modified loop about one-third of a mile long — while radioing in the pursuit. The instructor bumps the recruit’s car, yells and slaps down the recruit’s side-view mirror before peeling out to fluster the rookie, who must stay calm during the pursuit and the subsequent traffic stop.

Though the recruits knew the instructor would be difficult, they still had to manage their reactions once they were in the driver’s seat and the adrenaline kicked in.

‘‘This is some of the best training I’ve ever had,” Greg Junghans, 45, of Dunkirk said after completing his test. Junghans, a county fire marshal, applied to the academy to earn the power of arrest. ‘‘I love riding fire trucks, but after 23 years, I’m ready for a different type of work,” he said.

Safety is paramount when the recruits are behind the wheel. They watch footage of crashes and wear helmets during pursuits. The academy had one wreck several years ago, Carvajal said, but crashes are few and far between.

Safety is also crucial during shooting instruction. The recruits to learn to handle the county’s weapon of choice, a .40-caliber Glock, early on and log plenty of practice time in the academy’s indoor firing range, where they receive 40 hours of firearm instruction before they ever pull a trigger. Candidates are issued their guns upon graduation.

During the shooting rotation, they spend a week in Dickerson at the county’s outdoor firing range where they practice shooting under different conditions, such as varying amounts of sunlight.

‘‘A lot of these people have never fired a gun before, so we teach them everything,” said Gary Sommers, who was an officer in Prince George’s County for 21 years and has taught shooting for Montgomery County Police for 14. Sworn officers return to the range once a year to re-qualify to use their weapons.

Many recruits struggle with issues such as recoil, but the instructors help correct their mistakes. In time, they are able to handle the gun safely and comfortably.

‘‘I’ve realized a lot of the stuff we did at the beginning is easier now,” Hendrix said. ‘‘It’s like, what’s the next challenge?”