Law enforcement agencies across the country are reporting a dramatic drop in recruit numbers after several years of tense community relations.
In some North Carolina Basic Law Enforcement Training (BLET) classes, instructors have had a hard time getting enough applicants to even host the class. Classes in New Hanover County, however, are at capacity.
What does it take to become an officer? We followed two classes through four months of training. Get your water bottle and sweat rag. This isn’t going to be easy!
On the first day of class, we stood outside the Cape Fear Community College book store where recruits vying for positions at the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office, Wilmington Police Department and several other agencies need to pick up their textbooks and uniforms.
Do you remember the first day you started training at a new job? Stressful.
The young crowd of strangers was mostly silent. Maybe it was nerves. Maybe it was establishing a pecking order.
In either case, we had our eyes on two in particular: Jay Ross and Stephen Watson.
Ross is a Wilmington native who went to play football at East Carolina before being signing with the New Orleans Saints and then the Green Bay Packers.
Watson has been a civilian officer for the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office Animal Services Unit for years and was perfectly content until his fellow deputies pushed him to get deputized. Doing so would open him to new opportunities and give him arresting powers when he encountered animal cruelty cases.
But Watson, who is almost 50, was not originally thrilled with the idea, especially since his peers were young enough to be his children.
“We were all asked if we wanted to go through BLET and I was like, ‘Full stop! Thank you, but no thank you,’” Watson said with a laugh.
Undeterred, the deputies at Animal Services spent weeks talking him through the process with a little pep talk to boost his confidence. There was no turning back when they gave him a BLET haircut - a buzz cut.
The haircut was a big deal for Watson, who considers his hair as its own glorious being. His co-workers joke that he could swim across the Cape Fear River, come out the other side, and not a single strand would have been misplaced.
“People all over the world know me by my hair,” he joked. “They do! It’s the truth. It’s a gift. I don’t own it.”
Before joining the sheriff’s office as an officer, Watson worked a variety of odd jobs around his true passion: showing horses.
Ross, on the other hand, has never wrestled a critter, but he has grappled with plenty of big football players on the field.
Growing up, Ross credits his success to the people who came into his life to fill the void of mom and dad. His mother passed away the same year he graduated high school and his father was not immediately around.
Ross shows a huge smile when he talks about his grandmother being someone who had the biggest influence on his life.
The hometown graduate eventually saw a Super Bowl and what could have been a life of hopping from team to team, but Ross wasn’t having it. By that point in his life, he had a young family and had married his college sweetheart, Nakia.
When we think about NFL players, we think of big money. But that is not necessarily the case when they’re starting out.
Getting picked up and dropped by teams left little room for financial stability, and he was missing out on his children growing up. Ross decided it was time to hang up the jersey.
“If anybody’s talked to an ex-athlete, you go through a depression phase, not really knowing what you’ll do next,” Ross said. “All I wanted to do was go to the gym or lay around on the couch. She would come home from work and I’m on the couch with it smelling like Frito-Lay's chips, shoes off, and she told me, ‘If you’re not going to play football, you need to find something to do.’”
When Ross announced he had put in an application to work in the jail as a civilian officer for the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office, Nakia was speechless, to the point that she could utter just one word: “WHY?!”
Ross had a lot of interests and abilities but found that his time on the field hardly gave him credit for work experience years. Worse, most every employer just wanted to talk football but wasn’t seriously considering him.
The sheriff’s office felt different.
“I look at my lieutenant as my head coach, sergeants as my position coach, everybody I work with as my teammates,” he explained. “It’s like I’m still in it and I get that adrenaline rush every once in a while. I think it’s perfect for me here.”
A perfect fit for both Watson and Ross depends largely on whether or not they can handle the dreaded POPAT (Police Officer Physical Ability Training).
It’s an obstacle course that looks easy but levels almost everyone, even the buff personal trainer in the class.
The entire course is timed and starts with a run, 30 fast step ups, clearing a four-foot chain link fence then immediately dropping to a two-foot crawl under.
On the rescue portion of the course, they have to wrestle a heavy bag, drag a 175-pound dummy to safety and sweat it out with push-ups.
The push-ups seemed to get everyone. A marker on the ground set just how low they had to go and arms were shaking.
The first attempt at the POPAT for just about everyone was not a thing of beauty. For Watson, it was a reminder of muscles he had long forgotten he had. The man has not exactly lived a life of preservation, which he readily admits.
“There’s been a lot of work that goes into this to bring me out of the ashes,” Watson said.
Before things got exciting, there were weeks of law books and tests. Do you have any idea how many laws there are in North Carolina on top of our local laws? Enough to take up weeks of classroom time.
The courses are all taught by current officers and deputies.
At that point, it was finally time for practicals.
“They have to learn the physical aspect of arresting someone. If they resist, how do they control someone?” explained BLET Assistant Director Daryl Nester. “What laws were broken? What do they see in front of them? How do they secure evidence?”
Nester started at the Wilmington Police Department in 1985 and began teaching BLET in 1997 after feeling it was his turn to give back, as his mentors had done for him. Six years ago he retired but continues with the BLET program.
He explained that the program intensifies as they go up to patrol techniques where the students go through 12 hours of scenarios answering hypothetical calls.
There are exercises on how to survive if someone puts a gun to the back of their head, how and when to use their own firearm and an unapologetic preview of what’s ahead of them from the senior officers.
“We are constantly shown videos of real stops or calls that have gone bad with body cam or dash cam video and are now being used as training videos,” Watson said. “Some of them are very difficult to watch, not only because it’s law enforcement but because it’s another human being.”
2016 was one of the deadliest for law enforcement and particularly tragic for the number of ambush-style murders that took place.
That, added to the protests and general anti-cop sentiment that has hung over communities throughout the country, means it is not a time when many are eager to get into the line of duty.
“A lot of people don’t see the stuff that goes on, but while everyone in Wilmington is sleeping, there’s somebody patrolling your neighborhood,” Ross said. “Some people don’t appreciate it, but you have a lot of people who do.”
Without question, driver training was the highlight for everyone.
Recruits can only knock down a certain number of cones on the track to pass and then must practice a chase/pursuit scenario with a more experienced driver.
At the end of all of it came a 300-question state exam covering everything they learned. Without a passing grade, the process stops there. With one, their training has just begun. After graduation, they will go through a swearing in ceremony at their respective agency and then begin several more weeks of training.
After about four months of classes, tests and exercises, the students were back outside that bookstore again, only this time, not as strangers. It was time for their last huddle together before BLET graduation.
“I always get them around me and I’ve got a little motivational talk I give them,” Nester explained. “I say, ‘You need to understand one thing. After tonight, you are the one answering my 911 calls.’”
You’ll often hear law enforcement refer to a “Brother/Sisterhood.” The experienced officers know that it’s in both their and the communities' interest to fully embrace the training of these recruits.
At some point in most all our lives, they will be the ones to respond to our emergencies.
“A lot of people don’t like to hear this, especially the public, but the most important person out there on the street as far as law enforcement goes is that individual officer,“ Nester said. “That individual officer has to take care of himself first and foremost because if that officer goes down in the fight, there is no one else left to carry on the fight.”
As Watson stood in line to approach the graduation stage, he nervously shifted his weight back and forth. At the moment his name was announced, a roar from the crowd erupted as his entire BLET class gave him a standing ovation.
“I was the oldest one in the class by probably 20 years and tonight when they jumped up, that just moved me in ways I can’t even put into words,” he said, holding back tears. “I’m old enough to be their father and they were super proud of me.”
It’s made clear at any BLET graduation that applause is due for a very critical part of any law enforcement career: the families. Unlike a college graduation, the families are not relegated to certain seats and asked to hold their applause.
Instead, they take the stage with their graduate.
From the side of the room, we watched Ross carefully hold the hand of a woman to lead her step-by-step up the stage: his grandmother. Together with his wife, they watched Ross place his left hand on the Bible and raise his right.
“I’m very proud of him,” Nakia said with tears coming down her face. “The love Jay has for kids and people in general…he will be very great at what he does.”
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