Lessons from the Police Academy

Today marks the 25th Anniversary of 31 officers starting their journey with the DeKalb County Police Department. I wanted to share some experiences during that 6-month police academy.

Starting with a little background, I joined the DeKalb County Police Department right out of the Marines. It was my 2nd goal in life, just after becoming a Marine. I grew up in Metro-Atlanta and DeKalb County Police as an agency was legendary. The academy was known for being one of the most grueling and well-rounded in the country and only served the DeKalb County Police Department. It was run by several veteran DeKalb Police Officers whom all worked in the full-time capacity as academy instructors. They put an emphasis on officer survival by using stress inoculation, scenario-based training, intense live-fire range exercises, and multiple daily PT (physical training) sessions. Of course, the instructor that led the physical training portion was a retired Marine with a fearsome reputation. We had all heard stories about the man known as “Officer Irwin” and he certainly measured up to them. On the first day in the classroom, he stood quietly as the instructors were introduced to the class. He did not say a word, just stood there stoic-like, creating anxiety on top of the already existing anxiety. He suddenly went to every recruit and shook their hand, then walked off without a word, leaving us all a bit confused. It was as if he was saying, “Thanks for having the courage to try out for DeKalb PD, but I’m going to see if you’re worthy of it”. Every day the instructors subjected us to a 2.5-acre open field that was littered with old tires. Every dawn was met with numerous exercises using these radial doughnuts of despair. Even worse, if it rained the night before, they would be filled with water which would inevitably end up on you. Usually, you would PT in your full police gear, gun, ballistic vest and all. Drills varied but were always intense and realistic. One common drill consisted of instructors circling up the class on the field.

48th Academy graduation

They would essentially put two recruits in the center of the circle and they would have to grapple and attempt to gain control of one another. The instructor would point at each one and assign a role, “You’re the Good Guy and you’re the Bad Guy”. The bad guy’s primary goal was to get the good guy’s gun from his holster and the good guy’s goal was to restrain, gain control and handcuff the bad guy. Just when you thought you had the upper hand or were stuck on the bottom, the instructor would suddenly task another recruit in the circle, “You’re another bad guy” or “You’re a backup officer”, and the melee would evolve into fighting off multiple suspects or multiple officers arresting multiple suspects. One realization was that it is very difficult to control and handcuff someone who does not wish to be, especially if you are by yourself. There were lots of bruises and bloody noses, followed by constant soreness, aches and pains, but I always felt this was the training that best prepared us for what was to later be thrown at us in the streets, the alleys, the parking lots and even in stranger’s homes. I remember everyone seemed to dread the pending “fight day”. When recruits donned boxing gloves and faced off. This was probably the first place many of us learned what it felt like to be punched in the face, we also learned it was not the end of the world. Personally, I got schooled by a fellow recruit who was a Golden-Gloves boxer. Of course, my classmates love to tell that story. However, by subjecting us to that type of stress inoculation, I believe those instructors saved many police officer’s lives over the years. The academy was designed to be tough. Rightfully so, as it was the feeder for the 2nd largest law enforcement agency in Georgia. And, one that was, and still is, serving an area rife with violent crime and an annual homicide rate matching the City of Atlanta. 

On day one, the instructors took the prior military students outside to test their command presence. And just that quick, I was selected as the class leader. It entailed some basic troop management along with administrative tasks, like calling the class to attention when a “Real Police Officer” walked into the room. So, it was a day filled with me yelling, “48th, ATTEN-TION!”. One time, the academy director walked into the classroom and for some bizarre reason I stood up and shouted, “49th, ATTEN-TION!”. Upon calling out the wrong academy class number, I heard all my academy mates in unison make the sound, “ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh”. I would never live that down.

My Dad does the honors of pinning on my badge
My Big Brother congratulates me upon joining the Blue Line

Even though we were punished throughout the day for 6 months straight, it was one of the most fun times I’ve ever had. Every day was full of humor and gut-busting laughter usually focused around teasing and making fun of each other. You had to be armed with some thick skin because the class, and instructors, took no prisoners. As far as demographics, there were 31 graduates. 17 were black, 13 were white and 1 was Hispanic. Of that, 28 were male and 3 were female. I bring this up because like my experiences in the Marines, color and gender were not defining characteristics any of us cared about. If color had to be a factor, then I guess we were all the color blue. In the Marines, we were all the color green. As far as humor was concerned, nothing was off-limits and any screw-ups witnessed were surely going to be exploited before the whole class. You may think, “How can this be healthy?” Well, my short answer is that we all were confident, cohesive and fulfilled with meaning and purpose. This lies in the fact that when you are part of a small group, everyone is a spoke in the wheel contributing to the team’s success and survival, and you are collectively facing an obstacle, danger or challenge…then you become bonded by something far more powerful than skin color or biological makeup. This is why there exists so much camaraderie and harmony in small combat units, firefighters assigned to the same station, or police recruits all going through a 6-month grueling academy

At the conclusion, the graduating officers of class 48 would report for duty at 4 different precincts around metro-Atlanta. I requested South Precinct, which served Decatur and Southeast Atlanta, and reported for duty in May 1995. One of the best decisions I’ve ever made. South Precinct had a reputation of its own for being a tough assignment and I had the benefit of learning some serious lessons from those veteran officers who were already there. Many of them became mentors and lifelong friends. This was the beginning of many adventures and experiences that I often reflect upon. 

So, to all of my classmates from the 48th Academy, I salute you and say “Happy Anniversary!”

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