Having always been interested in law enforcement, I was happy to take a recent assignment that promised to introduce news media personnel to the rigors of the California Highway Patrol Academy and a little insight into the job of being an officer.
On Wednesday, I spent an intensive eight hours experiencing just a fraction of what academy cadets go through for 28 weeks. At the CHP Media Boot Camp, I was one of about 20 reporters and media personnel from around northern California who did sit-ups, push-ups, jumping jacks, and ran an obstacle course, all the while, being yelled at by an officer who sounded more like a drill sergeant. And that was just the start of the day.
As the fifth largest law enforcement agency in the country, the CHP trains its recruits in paramilitary fashion, using an intense combination of physical and academic regimens. A CHP cadet’s day starts at 4:30 a.m. and essentially concludes when they go to sleep at night.
While on the 456- acre training site, we could regularly hear squads of cadets marching and sounding off as they made their way to the next class or training.
During our tour, Officer Myron Wilson said a goal of the academy is to produce graduates who have matured over their time there and go on to become officers who understand what will be expected of them as peace officers.
While we were there, cadets conducted a solemn and touching ceremony to honor officers who lost their lives on duty commenced in the center fountain. Circling the round fountain, brass plates with the names of the fallen officers were polished in silent reverence before cadets marched back to their duties.
“Every current member of the CHP has gone through this academy,” said Capt. Josh Ehlers. “The intensity goes from moment one until the end. Your CHP officers out there serving the public have all undergone the exact same curriculum and have all endured extended element of what you are going to be experiencing during the day.”
The academy opened in July 1976, can accommodate up to 500 cadets at a time and is also used for non-uniform, dispatch and allied agency training.
“The ultimate goal of the academy is to produce the highest level of trained officers in the State of California,” he said, noting that every aspect of the training contributes to the mission of the department.
Lt. Jason Dougherty said the paramilitary-style training not only shapes officers who respond promptly and accurately, but also teaches them that “not everything is going to go as scripted in the field.”
“You’re going to find people who are very peaceful and compliant, where your guard will be down,” he said, “and you are going to have situations that will test your knowledge, your patience, your professionalism and ultimately, your training. In those cases, we want to induce as much stress as possible in order to train and get their mindset capable of understanding what it takes to perform in circumstances like that.”
It was noted several times during the day that officers cannot take a driver’s yelling or criticism personally, as most are upset with the uniform, not the actual officer.
As a graduate of the Lake County Sheriff’s Citizens Academy, a certified Mental Health First Aid Provider, and a reporter who has covered dozens of police, fire and emergency training exercises since I started in print reporting in 1999, I tend to think there’s not much about some assignments that will surprise me. Nonetheless, several aspects of the media boot camp were not at all what I expected.
First, at the age of 49, I consider myself to be in pretty good shape. I exercise regularly and about four months ago made changes in my diet that have resulted in the loss of over 15 pounds. So, I was looking forward to seeing how I would handle the physical training portion of the media boot camp.
I think I did well and was able to complete every aspect of the session from the running to the calisthenics to the obstacle course. However, two days later, it’s still a bit painful to walk up stairs, crawl out of my low-sitting car or squat in any appropriate manner.
Later, media personnel acted as officers in several exercises, coached by an instructor. We were walked through the protocols of investigating vehicle accidents and conducting field sobriety tests for alcohol and marijuana.
I have to admit the highlight of my day was driving a Dodge Charger patrol car on a curvy, wet track while being encouraged to slide the rear end around every corner. The track simulates a variety of hazardous conditions, where the officer needs to either keep the car from skidding or regain control once it does.
Other media folks liked the shooting range where they emptied the magazine of a 40-caliber semi-automatic handgun into a target.
Parked at the entrance to the shooting range was a grim reminder of what officers might face; a CHP patrol car with about 40 bullet holes in the windshield and exit holes throughout the car.
Mental health response
Media personnel were shown one of the ways cadets train to deal with mental health-related calls using a giant projection screen and interactive audio-video simulations. In one scenario involving a woman acting strangely on a bus, the trainer showed how an officer might calm the woman and determine she had not been taking her medication. KRON News reporter Terisa Estacio played the part of an officer responding to a possibly suicidal woman in a truck with a knife. With a series of questions, Estacio was able to determine the woman was having an adverse reaction to a recent change in medication and talked her into dropping the knife.
Instructors explained while officers are not psychologists, there are preferred ways to calm a situation and avoid having to use force to subdue a subject who is only in need of mental health care.
Use of force decisions
Media folks were also given a first-hand look at how the academy trains cadets to expect the unexpected as future CHP officers.
One scenario featuring live actors and a gun loaded with blanks didn’t turn out as expected.
Frankie Tovar, a digital content manager with Studio 209 magazine, acted as an officer at a seemingly routine traffic stop. While checking the information provided by the occupants of the car, the seemingly angry driver got out with a handful of papers and assertively walked toward the patrol car yelling, “I got that information, you want it?” Tovar drew his gun, ordering the driver to return to the vehicle. Ignoring Tovar’s commands to keep his hands in plain sight, the driver reached into his back pocket, saying, “Oh yeah, well I got something else for you,” before snapping his right arm to point at the officer. Tovar fired his gun and the subject fell to the ground, a cell phone clutched in his right hand.
During the following debriefing, instructors noted the driver’s actions were assertive and abnormal but could not say if Tovar’s actions would be found justifiable in the subsequent investigation.
Another reporter, Elias Funez, with the Union in Grass Valley, was put in a situation where a distraught subject with a knife to his own throat was noncompliant with orders to drop the weapon. Funez made the decision to use a taser on the subject, kick the knife safely away and forcefully restrain him. While effective in controlling the situation, instructors noted a better solution may have been to talk the subject down peacefully in order to reduce trauma on a subject who may already been having the worst day of his life.
I decided to forgo the use of force segment, as I had undergone a similar one years before with the Lake County Sheriff’s Office, where I accidentally shot a hostage during an intense standoff. While I knew the simulation was nothing more than a digital image in a controlled situation and no one was intentionally hurt, the memory of it kept me from sleeping for almost a week. As myself and the other reporters did, we looked back at the simulations from a safe, calm place and analyzed what we could have done differently in order to affect a different outcome.
My time at the Media Boot Camp, along with other experiences in my career, only reinforce my attitude that my personality and attention span make me far more suitable to be a journalist than an on duty law enforcement officer. We can all say from behind our computer screens how we would have acted in a volatile or unplanned situation. But until the very second it unfolds, we simply don’t know.
Two days later, my legs are still a bit stiff and my head is still swimming with information but I’m again certain I prefer after the fact investigation over having to make life-or-death decisions in a split second. As one instructor said, officers cannot have a bad day because when they do, it can make national headlines.
If you feel you’re up to the challenge, CHP is looking for new recruits and according to one cadet I spoke with, the state pays you to attend.
Find more information about the CHP Academy online at https://www.chp.ca.gov/chp-careers/officer/life-in-the-academy class="Apple-converted-space">
Reach Tony Reed at firstname.lastname@example.org