Law enforcement nationwide has endured a fair amount of public scrutiny during the past few years, with some high-profile shootings and allegations of racial biases – sometimes backed up by data.
But at least one law enforcement professional in Southwest Colorado said there has never been a better time to become a cop.
Police Academy Director Douglas Parker said reforms are underway with how officers are trained, vetted and hired. New recruits are in high demand, and they will have new skills and tools for dealing with a host of sensitive issues, including mental health-related calls.
“We both know there is a lot of controversy around law enforcement right now,” Parker said. “Sadly, a lot of it’s self-inflicted. Not all of it, but a lot of it is.”
Ten cadets graduated earlier this month from Pueblo Community College’s Southwest Regional Law Enforcement Academy with jobs already lined up in local law enforcement.
The class was slightly smaller than the typical class size, said Parker, who has been with the academy a little more than three years.
The cadets graduated Dec. 11 after 18 weeks of what Parker described as a “grueling” course curriculum set by Colorado Peace Officers Standards and Training, the agency that regulates law enforcement in the state. Classes were typically taught five to six days a week and often extended over eight hours per class, Parker said.
Cadets were immersed in 62 different topics of study that included mental health crises response, firearms use, arrest control and Colorado law.
“There’s a lot to learn, and you are learning topics that are foreign to you,” Parker said.
The cadets were all sponsored by the time of graduation, meaning they were already recruited by a law enforcement agency.
“That was nice to know because one of the things that I tell all of my cadets is this isn’t about just taking your money, giving you a piece of paper and saying, ‘Have a nice life,’” Parker said.
He noted it is one thing to make it through the police academy and quite another to get to work in real-world scenarios.
“Unlike in the academy where we have do-overs, in the real world, they don’t,” he said. “So we’ll see how well they do.”
After graduation, the new officers will transition into a field training program where they will ride along with trained veteran officers.
“It’s pretty intense,” he said. “... I think people sometimes come to the academy not understanding how difficult it is going to be. But when you think about it, there’s no other program that I know of where you can start off on day one and 18 weeks later you are career-ready.”
Parker, who has been in law enforcement for more than 40 years, said he shakes his head at “some of the things that go on,” such as crisis-intervention going wrong.
The training model for law enforcement has been “stuck in a rut for a number of years,” despite there being many good people in the profession, but it’s on the right track toward something better, he said.
There’s a shift in the general mindset about training police officers – something that Parker likes to see, he said.
A greater emphasis on communication skills exists than it had in the past, and Parker thinks that’s for the better.
Another positive reform is crisis-intervention training, or training officers to intervene with people who are undergoing a mental crisis.
“There are a lot of those people out there,” Parker said.
It used to be that police officers were dispatched to situations involving people undergoing mental crises without proper training about how to interact with those individuals.
“What happens is they resort to the pools of law enforcement and those encounters sometimes go very badly,” he said.
More recently, a conversation is being had about why officers are being sent to situations they are not trained to handle.
Parker said Durango’s Co-Response Program is a good example of how mental crisis situations are being handled now. The program empowers social workers and police officers to tend to behavioral health incidents together.
Parker said new cadets don’t always realize what they are getting into when they apply for Southwest Regional Law Enforcement Academy. They don’t always understand how difficult law enforcement is.
It is a time of change for law enforcement, he said, and people who want to see changes take place have the chance to be “right in the thick of it and be part of it.”
“If you don’t like what you see out there, as I don’t, and you want to be a part of making it better for your community, then step up and join up,” Parker said. “Uncle Sam needs you, as the poster used to say, right?”