The NC Justice Academy may be one of the most important pieces of state government, despite being tucked away in a small town of about 500 people in rural Sampson County.
It's a 100-acre campus that houses administrative buildings, classrooms, dorms, and the nexus of all law enforcement training in the state.
“With curriculum that we develop, whether its basic training or in-service training, every law enforcement officer, detention officer and telecommunicators who work for sheriffs, are impacted by what we do here in Salemburg and what we do in (the Justice Academy West Campus in) Edneyville,” said Mark Strickland, Director of the NC Justice Academy.
While we all encounter law enforcement in our daily lives, I've had more contact with people in that line of work in my time reporting. In my many exchanges, I've often wondered what it takes to earn the right to wear the badge. Do I have what it take to face the similar decisions these men and women are challenged with every day?
I decided to get those questions answered and scheduled a visit to the Justice Academy at the end of June.
My visit happened before the recent police-involved shootings in Baton Rouge and Minnesota and the attack on officers in Dallas. Had they happened before the trip, this story would likely have a different tone.
“Our biggest customers are officers from the smallest agencies, and they receive the biggest benefit from what we have to offer,” Strickland said.
Cruisers from more than a dozen departments across the state filled the gravel parking lot across from the main building of the academy.
Nearly 14,000 students take classes on the Salemburg campus last year, with another 10,000 taking courses online.
The experts at the academy are instrumental in developing courses taught to new recruits in basic law enforcement training across North Carolina. All officers must also complete yearly “in-service” training, courses also developed by the academy staff.
The classes may be created from special requests made by police departments or officials. Others may arise from the need to address new issues or challenges facing law enforcement nationwide.
There is a large lot across the road from the main campus that resembles a parking lot at a big-box retail store. There are no parking lines painted on the lot, but there are traffic cones set up in patterns in two areas. This is where driver training takes place.
Strickland and two of his deputy directors led us to an area where we saw a pair of late model Dodge Chargers, a pair of well-used Ford Crown Victorias, and a group of other staffers.
Driver instructor and coordinator Dan Worley explained there are ten courses used in training new students. I was able to see two of those courses: the Serpentine and the 50-food Radius Curve. Trainees have to pass all ten courses to complete the class.
“All of these courses are developed to train someone at a basic law enforcement level,” Worley said. “We’re not talking about the high speed or high-speed mechanics. We’re trying to train them at the basic level first before they go out to an advanced level of training.”
The Serpentine course features four sets of four cones, bookended by two other sets of cones set up in a half-rectangle shape. A black Dodge Charger backed into one of those half-rectangles, with the headlights staring down the four sets of lined cones and into the open end of the second half-rectangle.
To start the demonstration, we watched an instructor launch the car forward and to the right of the first set of four cones. Once the nose of the Charger cleared the fourth cone, it banked on the right-side tires toward the opposite side of the second set of cones.
“With this particular course, you have a lot of input both left and right, so it is constantly putting the car off-center,” said Worley from behind a pair of dark sunglasses. “It requires a much more heightened ability to be able to manipulate the accelerator as they try to negotiate back and forth.”
With the beep of a car horn (which is mandatory during training when a vehicle is put into reverse), the Charger quickly pulls out and beings to navigate the course backward. The series of two lefts and two rights culminates with the instructor backing the car into its’ starting space. Demonstration complete.
"So, Jon, want to give it a try?"
I was confident I could complete the course after seeing the demonstration until Worley mentioned something about a time limit. Drivers have to complete the course in 40 seconds, without knocking down any of the cones.
I climbed into the Charger and sat behind the wheel to give it a shot.
Pulling out of the parking spot was smooth, and moving forward through the cones wasn’t much of a chore either. I maneuvered into the second half-rectangle, sounded the horn, and threw the gearstick into reverse. That’s when the tougher part of the session began.
I found myself almost guessing on when I had cleared the fourth cone, before sliding the car from one side to the other. The view going backward at any rate of speed other than what I’m used to was much more restricted, so I took it slower than I thought I would.
When I finally backed the car into the space, came to a stop and put it into park, I looked forward and saw all of the cones were still standing. Success.
“That would have been 54 seconds,” Worley said.
“54?” I questioned. “Wow!”
My second attempt ended in about 48 seconds and my final try was 44 -- neither would have earned me a passing grade.
At first glance, the Prism Suite 5.0 Use of Force Simulator resembles a setup similar to a giant video game. A large screen fills most of one wall in the room, which seems comparable in size to the one next door where an instructor is teaching class.
A large erase board is on another wall, and someone has written, “NO Live Ammo, Yes this means You!”
In the back of the room is an area with a desktop computer and several wires where an instructor sits to manipulate the video we are about to see. Training Manager Tony Losada explained the instructors can make the video react to the commands given by the person going through the training.
“When the technology first came out there was a company called FATS, Firearms Training Simulators, they had something similar," Losada said. "But it was just shoot or don’t shoot, those were the only two options, it did not offer a lot of branching, and it became like an arcade game. There wasn’t a lot of learning value to it. Now you have the capability of it being responsive to your commands.”
Richard White, Jr. put on a belt similar to those worn by police officers, deputies and troopers. The gun, pepper spray, and flashlight are not real, but they are realistic pieces of this training equipment.
He stepped up to an area about 15 feet from the screen as the "dashcam" video began.
The driver of a truck on a four-lane street refused to pull over for a traffic stop. The truck continues on for about a minute, before pulling off the road and onto a side street. White is tense but motionless. The driver’s door of the pickup opens slightly.
“Driver, close your door,” White ordered. No response on the video.
“Driver, close your door and show me your hands,” White continued.
“Close your door and show me your hands,” he repeated in a slightly louder tone. “Do it now!”
I watched as White’s hand reaches for his gun. He pulls it out of the holster, grips it with both hands, and has it pointed to the ground as he begins to repeat the order a fourth time.
Out of the corner of my eye, I spot movement in the video. The driver bolts from the driver’s seat and points a gun at the camera.
White is quicker. He fired three shots from the gun. The subject in the video is down. The screen fades to black.
"We’re trying to give them the most realistic training they can get, without actually having to engage someone with real weapons or real simunitions," Losado said. “It’s not as easy as it sounds when you’re watching it on TV or you’re reading a report the next day that an officer had an encounter in the street and you’re trying to say, ‘well, I would have done it differently.' Now you have the opportunity to see that.”
Minutes later, the same video starts playing again, with Losada standing at the screen. He gives orders similar to White’s, only, this time, the driver’s door opens and the same man exits, without a weapon. He raises his hands and gets down on his knees.
A peaceful ending to the same scenario.
Then it was my turn to step up to the screen. The equipment belt I strapped on was heavier and bulkier than I had expected - it can't be easy to run while wearing one.
My biggest concern before the simulation began? Would I be able to draw my weapon, if I needed to?
In the training video I experienced, a pickup driver refused to pull over, leading me out of town on a rural, two-lane road. Finally, the driver pulled off the road, and I was set to engage with whoever was behind the wheel.
“Driver, get out of the vehicle, put your hands up" I said, but that didn't work.
The driver got out but started walking toward the camera. I had my gun aimed straight at him.
“Put your hands up, stay right there,” I said to the driver, who didn’t cooperate and started walking toward me, saying something that I couldn't make out.
“Stay right there, put your hands up,” is my default order. I didn't want to shoot, but he wasn't listening.
That's when the man stopped and reached into the bed of the pickup truck.
The finger I had on the trigger started to constrict, as I yell once again, “Put your hands up, and get on the ground!"
Slowly, he brought the empty hand out of the truck bed, and I'm glad I didn't pull the trigger. The driver took a few steps toward me and then jumped back.
The driver moved toward the door of the pickup, while I continued ordering him to, "Put your hands up, and get on the ground!" The driver reached into the front seat, pulled out what looked like a shotgun, and slowly turned and pointed it toward me..
I fired one shot and the driver went down.
"Stay down and don't move," I ordered, but the driver swung the shotgun up toward me. I pulled the trigger and heard the sound of gunfire, but from his gun - not mine, which jammed and refused to fire again. His worked.
Each of these sessions can be recorded, and used as part of an officer’s training. It gives the instructor and officer the chance to go over the specific situation, to see what the officer did well and where mistakes were made.
“One of the things I would point out is you tried to move towards him," said Losada as we reviewed the video afterward. “Not necessarily the best thing to do. You want to make sure you have some distance. He is being a little irrational. You’re not sure what he is doing, so sometimes instead of moving toward the threat, it's better backing away. There is nothing wrong with running and calling for backup.”
Through this experience, I learned how difficult it is to make a split second decision of whether to fire a gun at someone who is pointing a gun at me.
There are men and women who are willing to put their lives on the line every day and make those decisions if it is necessary.
“The use of force simulator is not just a shooting simulator,” Strickland said. “We want officers to make good decisions. To take the information that is in front of them and make the best decision they can make at that particular point in time.”
The recent series of police-related shootings across the United States has focused more attention on the training of law enforcement officers, and the relationships between law enforcement and minority communities.
The academy offers Juvenile Minority Sensitivity Training, which is updated annually and required for every officer in North Carolina.
Additionally, the staff is putting the finishing touches on a new position to concentrate on community relations. It builds on the concept that police must work with their communities to lower the level of distrust and tension between police and citizens.
“With the current media attention on law enforcement, we’ve got to step up our game,” Strickland said. “We’ve got to train in specific areas, and that’s what we’re doing across the entire state of North Carolina.”
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