After 42 Years, I Went Back To The Law Enforcement Academy And Graduated Again. This Time As A Citizen.

In 1980 I graduated from the Police Academy in Farmington, New Mexico. I was first academically, last overall – I may have been the worst runner they’d ever had grace the joint and, frankly, I annoyed the Lieutenant in charge with my mere presence. But I did test well on all the other stuff.

Thankfully, the Collier County Sheriff’s Office Citizens Academy (and advanced academy) didn’t make me run. They did challenge me with a few sets of steps in the jail, but nothing too strenuous. 

I would be anything but candid if I didn’t report this experience honestly. So, what I will report on is the program presented by the Sheriff’s Office, and not on the personalities I met there as students – except for Amy. Amy and I became good friends and went out for pizza each week in search of conversation and the best pie in Naples, Florida. I don’t think we settled the issue for sure, but my favorite so far in the region is the Twisted Sheep. Those folks serve an excellent pizza. 

First, the people who ran the program each week were spectacular. I truly cannot say enough about their efforts to make things run smoothly. Unlike my first academy, which provided tea, coffee and hot chocolate but no snacks ( I think they were making sure we could sit for two hours with a full bladder) they made sure we were fed plenty of cookies, snacks, coffee, water and so forth each week. Range day meant donuts. 42 years ago range day just meant picking up brass for an hour after we finished shooting. I’ll take donuts.

But, back to the point: Sergeant Natalie Ashby, Lieutenant Rene Gonzales, and Erin Dever were inspirational. I’ve done my share of training over the years and can honestly say they were the most diplomatic, polite, and tolerant people you could imagine while herding the cats that are citizen recruits. My hat is off to them for representing the Sheriff’s Office with such grace. 

 

Sgt. Natalie Ashby

Lt. Rene Gonzales

Erin Dever

I spent longer in these two academies than I did in the one where I got a badge. Stretched out over the Christmas holiday, I was gone one night a week for about 5 months. 

Each week we’d be introduced to a new set of speakers, new departments within the Sheriff’s Office, and a pantheon of spectacular professionals who were brutally honest with the citizens in the academy.

It’s not easy to snow me in this area. I might be old, but I can smell a dose of bull about a block away. Not once in the academy did I feel that we were getting a snow job. Now, needless to say, the instructors presented to their strengths and the things they knew best. That, my friends, is the amazing part. 

I’ve been writing about, engaged in, or riding along with law enforcement since the 1970s. Never, in all my varied experiences, have I encountered a department that was so forward thinking, so emphatic about doing the right thing, and so focused on training as the Collier County Sheriff’s Office under Sheriff Kevin Rambosk. 

Sheriff Kevin Rambosk

 

In every department we visited, during every presentation I sat through,  and after every hallway encounter, I walked away impressed. One of the main reasons they won me over was that they really tried to educate the citizens about what law enforcement really means as a career. There are no magic 2-hour solutions on DNA testing, no just looking at a print at the crime scene and knowing who left it, or any of the other silly television tropes. 

Instead, the professionals explained the way they worked. They put students into shoot-no-shoot scenarios and let them realize just how fast you have to think – and how rotten they were at handling it without a lot of training. Whether bad guys killed someone because we were slow on the draw, or someone drilled an innocent full of holes because they were trigger happy, it was a revealing experience.

Same said for time on the range. I’ve spent hundreds of hours shooting over the years, and so I watched for the most part. Good instruction. And a surprising number of people who had never fired a weapon of any kind. It was a great chance for them to get a sense of what it was like to really use a weapon as a tool.

This mantra of “hands on” extended to the Advanced Academy where a crime was committed in front of the class and then investigated over the next six weeks. It concluded in a mock trial. I was the juror who wouldn’t convict: they purposely made it ambiguous to make sure the citizens understood how little you accurately remember under stress. A valuable lesson.

In the intervening weeks we toured the crime lab, the county jail (an amazingly clean and well run facility with a very professional staff), saw demos from the SWAT (Special Weapons And Tactics) teams and CERT (the jail’s Corrections Emergency Response Team), met with the aviation units twice for flight demonstrations, and had classes with drones zooming around inside the training building. I must also mention the K-9 units: they were a riot. Dogs have a sense of humor, as did their handlers.

What I witnessed was leadership from the top down. Each level understands what the mission is, how the boss expects it to happen, and what the standards are. Most importantly, if anyone can get a cop to trash talk their peers and bosses, it’s me. I tried very hard to wheedle out some smack, but there was none. 

Perhaps that’s because Sheriff Rambosk has the streets’ back. He made it very clear that if you break the rules you will either be retrained or canned. Same if you commit a crime wearing the badge: you face the law just like any citizen.

Conversely, he wants the truth, and there will be more times that he tells the complainant to pound sand and backs his force than the other way around. Let’s be honest about what cops need: support. They all seemed to feel that the man in the corner office would back them as long as they did their best for the citizens. Truly, isn’t that what you want from your law enforcement people? It’s what I want. It’s what cops want. It’s what’s right.

My friend recently joked that “You’re damned near a deputy after all that schooling.” Nope. Not even close. I love training first responders in resilience and mental wellness. I enjoy doing a ride along now and then. But I’m not sure I’d be good enough to be a part of this department. These men and women are all impressive. 

Thank you, Collier County, for electing a great Sheriff. Thank you, Sheriff Rambosk for putting on this academy.  

Sheriff Rambosk

 

I’m hoping that you’re asking the question that I first had: why would anyone attend a citizen’s academy?

In my case, I knew I’d validate my previous knowledge or find out I was a fraud. I came through pretty well. But for most citizens it will reveal a vital part of their government to them and let them see the challenges our law enforcement people face every day. It is also a great “put up or shut up” moment for fans and critics of law enforcement alike. You will find out the truth in an academy, and walk out with a rational foundation for your views. You might still be a critic, and that’s your right. But you will have an understanding of the human factor and perhaps work to improve the system versus just criticizing it.

My point? You should check to see if your local agency has a similar program. It will open your eyes to what really happens, how tough this job is, and how often the press gets it wrong. I only hope your department is as special and good as mine. 

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Comments

After 42 Years, I Went Back To The Law Enforcement Academy And Graduated Again. This Time As A Citizen. — 3 Comments

  1. It sounds like a great experience, Joe. Bless you for what you’ve done. (Can’t find a way to start a new paragraph, so…) And you were a cop in Farmington? You almost made it to God’s country. Keep trying!

  2. Sounds very impressive. As you know, Joseph, I live in a blue state where woke politics rules (at least on most of the western part of the state). This, that you describe here, is the way we admire, respect, and wish it to be.

  3. I took my town’s citizen police academy course a couple years ago. It’s great background for a writer.

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