Training Day: From citizen to officer

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EAU CLAIRE, Wis— They are our neighbors in blue. We see them patrolling our streets, responding to emergencies and knocking on doors. But, do you know what it takes to get the badge?

The Eau Claire Police Department has 100 officers. They're tasked with protecting and serving the more than 65,000 of us living in the community.

Eau Claire Police Chief Jerry Staniszewski says an officer must be able to do more than write tickets and follow procedures.

"We're looking for that person that has a connection with the community and can be self-sufficient and be able to solve problems," Staniszewski said.

That means before a cop starts patrolling the streets, there is a lot of work done behind the scenes. The Eau Claire Police Department says on average it has 100 people sign up for its recruitment process. In order to qualify, people must have completed 60 college credits and have attended a police academy.

The first phase of recruitment, candidates must pass a writing exam and several physical tests; including running 1.5 miles in under 15 minutes and completing a series of sit ups and push-ups.

Community Relations Officer Kyle Roder says after the first phase the pool of candidates is cut down to 15-20 people. They are then interviewed by the police and fire commission.

The final phase includes; psychological, polygraph and drug tests. Roder says on average only 1 to 4 candidates end up getting hired.

Now that is only the hiring process, the Eau Claire Police Department has a yearlong training program called ‘Police Training Officer’ or PTO.

“There is not much in our job that's black and white and our training program is based on that,” said Lt. Greg Weber.

Weber says the PTO program is based on critical thinking skills and asks officers to think outside the box.

To get a better idea of what that means in a profession known for procedures, ECPD gave me a crash course on PTO starting with a lesson behind the wheel of a squad car.

"Officers drive in emergency mode almost every day,” said Sgt. Travis Quella.

Sgt. Quella trains ECPD officers on emergency vehicle training. He says the first thing new officers learn is when the lights and sirens turn on there is a physiological change that takes place in the brain.

“There is a natural adrenaline dump, tunnel vision and when you combine that with the type of call you are responding too and it could be high risk, violent call, someone might be in danger there are a lot of things to process,” said Quella.

ECPD officers practice driving in emergency mode, deploying stop sticks and making traffic stops.

"You have to make smart decisions on how fast you can go sometimes you can get there faster by driving slower," said Quella.

Quella says one of the hardest things for officers to grasp is effectively talking on the radio to relay information to headquarters and other officers.

ECPD uses scenario based training to help prepare for the unexpected.

“Scenario based training throws different things at them and lets them react,” said Sgt. and then they are more prepared for the ‘what if’ scenario,” Sgt George Eliopoulos said.

Sgt. Eliopoulos is the commander of Eau Claire’s Tactical Response Team. The TRT team does scenario based training for 8 hours once a month. What they learn then gets taught to the rest of the department.

“There not just swat tactics there tactics can be applied to everyday. It’s a misnomer that I have 24 guys sitting in a vehicle in full armor to wait. We are all patrolman, detectives, middle schools police liaisons,” said Eliopoulos.

Take the hostage situation at Hidden Place in back in March. Eliopoulos says it was an officer on patrol that first made contact with the suspect.

And that means all officers have to be ready for any situation.

ECPD took me through two scenarios.

In the first scenario, I’m being asked to check on someone who is acting suspicious. After I introduce myself and ask the suspect to show me his hands, he pulls a gun. As the scenario unfolds, one second of hesitation gets me shot. (The scenario-based training uses no real weapons)

Sgt. Terry Nicks trains officers in defense and arrest tactics. He says it takes a split second for a situation to escalate and put the officer or community in harms way.

“If you've rehearsed it, then it’s a memory you are just reacting to it,” said Nicks.

ECPD’s training program embodies the philosophy, practice makes perfect.

Firearms Instructor Sgt. Ben Fredrick says an officer's gun does them no good if they don't understand how to use it.

“We work through repetition, repetition till we reach proficiency, so the gun becomes second nature to the officer,” said Fredrick.

Officers train with both with a Glock and AK semi-automatic rifle. Fredrick says pulling the trigger is always an officer’s last resort.

Fredrick says an officer’s use of force is dictated by the threat. He says deadly force is only used when the threat is deadly for the officer or the community.

“An officer has to look at a potential threat, assess that threat and determine what level of force to use to overcome that threat or stop that threat and that all has to be done sometimes in the blink of an eye,” said Fredrick.

I took on the gun range after a quick lesson on gun safety. I was able to hit the target every time but what I lacked was precision.

But with all the tools on their belt, Roder says an officer's most important tool is communication.

“If you can effectively communicate with the public you generally don't have to resort to the physical element. Now sometimes that's unavoidable so we do need officers that can handle themselves but we also need people who can think on their feet."

ECPD’s newest officer Nick Rusin is still in training. He patrols with a training officer who is watching his every move.

“It can be frustrating because you can make mistakes and you have to pick yourself up from them but it’s very rewarding none the less,” said Rusin.

But all the training for Rusin and for all Eau Claire Police Officers is for one common goal, to make a difference.

“I see terrible things happen to good people every day and well I may not be able to undo what happened to people, in some small way my actions as a police officer may help someone's terrible day get a little better,” said Rusin.

One unique aspect of ECPD's training program is the requirement of a Neighborhood Portfolio. It has new officers find a community project and complete in their first year. The projects range from improving intersection safety to security systems for local businesses, like the YMCA. The goal is to get the new officer involved with the community.

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