Hitting the ground running: SCC the first to host expanded training for future NPS officers
“I just don’t want to take any chances,” the hard-hatted contractor tells the officers as they get out of their flashing police car.
The hotel he’s working on has been getting threats from a group of environmental extremists, and caution kicked in when he caught sight of someone slipping around the corner of the building as he pulled into the driveway after hours. He’d come back to pick up a paper he’d left behind, but nobody else was supposed to be there.
The lead officer, Blake Salter, asks a few follow-up questions, thanks the man, and approaches the site. A woman’s frame becomes visible in the crack between the two small structures on site, and Salter orders her to come forward.
“Dammit,” she says, frustrated. “I wasn’t doing anything.”
She meets the officers in front of the building, surrendering her backpack when they ask to search it. The bag holds a sampling of literature espousing her environmentally extreme point of view, as well as a can of spray paint. As Salter takes down her information, the woman — Dolores Litchford — becomes increasingly agitated.
“My roommate and I have very similar backpacks, and I picked hers up by accident,” she tells the officers. “I guess she has spray paint, but it has nothing to do with me.”
“I’m a decent citizen,” she continues when the officer keeps writing rather than answering her statement. “I just care about our environment and wildlife.”
Salter says he cares about the environment too, and that’s why he’s a National Park Service officer rather than a municipal police officer. But being that she’s trespassing on a construction site — and, though he can’t prove it, was likely planning to tag the place — Salter issues her a citation for trespassing charges and escorts her off the property, warning her there will be a lot more where that came from if her group keeps trying to interfere with the project.
Making it realistic
It wasn’t Litchford’s first encounter with law enforcement that day, but she won’t wind up with any kind of record. All of her supposed misdeeds, like those of other actors scattered around the campus of Southwestern Community College’s Jerry Sutton Law Enforcement Training Center that day, were part of scenes created to prepare the newest crop of prospective Park Service law enforcement officers for the real world.
“I like to make it as realistic as possible so they’ll be ready for what can possibly happen,” explained Leah McCall, a scenario evaluator for SCC who’s also a retired highway patrol officer. “If we’re going easy with them here, that means they don’t go home in real life.”
Her conversations with students after they wrapped up the role-play scenario with Litchford certainly reflected that goal.
“You’re doing like some of the others and really relying on your cover officer for a lot stuff,” she told Salter. “It’s OK, but you have to be thinking about what if I were by myself.”
For Park Service officers, self-sufficiency is required far more often than in other law enforcement agencies. Many national parks are large and remote, with a low ratio of officers per square mile. Help could be an hour or more, away. Even getting the word back to dispatch could be difficult, as topography and distance play tricks on radio and cell service.
“We don’t always have the privilege to have backup there right way,” said Ryan Verhegge, a student in the course. “You have to be on your toes and know how to work with people to de-escalate a situation as soon as possible. You really have to know how to handle yourself in a situation as nonviolently as possibly.”
Teaching it better
The Seasonal Law Enforcement Academy in which Verhegge and his classmates are enrolled prepares students to take a job as a seasonal law enforcement officer in the National Parks System. Until recently, that had been a 400-hour course, a curriculum far shorter than the 650 hours required of their year-round counterparts.
Seasonals and permanent officers would be ”working side-by-side in the parks working the exact same job,” said SCC’s SLET coordinator Don Coleman, but the seasonals would have far less training to call upon.
The Park Service is looking to fix that problem by upping the seasonal training program to 650 hours — and it’s chosen SCC to pilot the new curriculum.
According to Mark Cutler, the Park Service’s branch chief of seasonal law enforcement training, SCC “consistently demonstrates a high standard and delivers a high quality of instruction,” and has the resources to pull off the revamped program “They’ve met or exceeded all criteria we set out.”
Coleman, himself a graduate of SCC’s program who came into his current job only a year ago, after a career in Park Service law enforcement, is excited about the schools’ selection to pilot the program, but not surprised.
“We have and have had for many years a reputation for excellence,” he said, with SCC regularly exceeding the bare minimum requirements set forth by the Park Service. Even the 400-hour course, he said, was not really 400 hours. The school would always pad the training with extra hours to give students the tools they would need to do the job, and the 650-hour course will, in all likelihood, be more than 650 hours.
SCC is also is among the cheapest of the nation’s seven training programs, with the school managing to keep tuition for the expanded program at the same level it was for the 400-hour course, though fees for materials and housing will likely rise.
“We make it affordable because these kids are paying for it out of their own pockets,” Coleman said. “The National Park Service is not paying them to come here.”
Students have been going to school six days a week, working to fit all the extra training in with just one week added to the calendar. In the spring, when the nation’s six other SLET programs adopt the new program, the term will go to 18 weeks with class five days per week.
“It’s long, it’s hard, and they test your limits,” said student Stephanie Obernesser. “They push you and there are a couple of times where it’s like, holy cow, I don’t know if I’m going to pull this off — but you do, and it’s a great.”
For Obernesser, one of the most challenging parts of the course so far was getting sprayed with mace. The peppery spray was terrible to experience, but instructors didn’t just line them up, spray them and call it a day, because that’s not how it happens in real life. Students had to receive their spray and then play out an intense scenario.
“They make you throw kicks and punches and arrest someone while you’re going through an awful chemical reaction at the same time,” she said.
The training’s been hard for everyone, but as the only female in the class, Obernesser’s challenge had another dimension. Law enforcement is a “testosterone-driven” industry, she said, so while she has nothing but good things to say about the guys in her class, she’s been conscious of the need to work hard and make sure she’s matching her male counterparts.
“Part of me coming here wasn’t so much like ‘this is what I want and I know I’m going to fit,’” said Obernesser, whose parents both spent entire careers in the Park Service. “It was partly that and it was also ‘does this work for me and am I capable of doing this job. Now that I’m here, I know I can.”
The legal side
The challenge isn’t all physical.
“They’ve really emphasized the importance of the regulations, knowing your job — especially in today’s law enforcement climate, which may not be the most positive,” said Ethan Palmer, a Navy veteran for whom being a park ranger is a “dream job.”
A park ranger has to know the tangle of regulations he deals with — park rules, the relationship between federal and state law on park land, legal issues surrounding investigations and arrest — and be able to pair that knowledge with action at a moment’s notice.
Students practiced one such example with a scenario in which park visitors reported a man with a gun pacing the parking lot. The ranger-in-training approaches the man, who’s got a (fake) gun slung across his shoulder. He asks to see the weapon, and the man grudgingly hands it over. Then he asks for the man’s ID, runs his history.
“I really hope I’m not going to be arrested, because if so you’re going to hear from my attorney,” the man mutters. “I won’t even have to pay for one. The Second Amendment Fund will supply one.”
He’s actually within his rights to have the weapon, Coleman says. As of 2008, though hunting regulations vary, weapons are legal in all national parks according to whatever laws are on the books in the state where the park is located.
But, he said of the scenario situation, “for many people that would cause concern, so we’re teaching our guys how to deal with that situation.”
In this case, the student asks the man — who said he was just waiting for his friend to pick him up to do some target shooting elsewhere — if he’d mind putting the gun in his car until his friend arrived. The man consented, and the scenario wrapped up.
The course will wrap up Dec. 4, paving the way for the nation’s seven SLET training programs to launch the new curriculum in January. But for a rough run, SCC’s program is pretty great, students say. They’re ready to be officers.
“It’s one thing to sit in the classroom and take notes and talk about these things,” Obernesser said, “but really getting out there and saying, ‘I’m going to run some guy down and pull my gun out,’ it puts into perspective that’s what I’m learning to do.”