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Inside the Academy

Instructors at the Vermont Police Academy demonstrate defensive techniques. Photo courtesy of the Vermont Police Academy.
It looks like any college classroom. Cinder block walls, visuals on the overhead screen, and a teacher at the lectern. About two dozen young men and women are seated at long tables. 

But this is no ordinary classroom. All of the students are dressed in identical gray outfits and sitting up impressively straight. They all have white notebooks beside them (the notebooks are also impressively straight). No one shuffled in late. No one is staring down at a cell phone. 

The classroom is one of many at the Vermont Police Academy in Pittsford. The students are the recruits who hope to become the next generation of Vermont police officers. Before beginning their training, they must have passed a written exam, as well as a psychological inventory known as the “MMPI.” They also must have sponsorship from their local police agency, which covers the cost of tuition. They live in dorms while they study, take written tests, practice the skills taught, and participate in physical training exercises. 

On this September morning the focus will be on the use of force, which comes under the heading of “Police Patrol Techniques.” Today’s lecture will address only one aspect of the use of force, and there are many. In addition to police patrol techniques, the 17-week academy curriculum will cover other subjects including investigative procedures, communication, and professional demeanor.

Mike Akerlind, one of two instructors, is lecturing about the skills these men and women will need when faced with confrontational or potentially violent individuals. 

“There is no place for your ego here,” he tells the group. His co-teacher, Jake Hansell, expands on this “When a subject is resisting you, you can’t take it personally. It’s not a ‘you versus them’ situation.” 

Every student will be taught skills, including defensive techniques to protect the officer and the public from an individual who may become aggressive. Akerlind stresses “If you don’t have your skills and you don’t know what your lawful authority is, that’s when bad things can happen.” The instructors demonstrate the four- to six-foot distance an officer must keep from a subject when an interview begins, close enough to react if the individual attacks, but not so close that the situation escalates. 

In the follow-up practice, Hansell and Ackerlind model defensive techniques involving correct placement of hands, arms, legs, and feet. As students practice in pairs, one taking the role of an officer, the other an “offender,” assistant trainers move around the mats, watching, prompting, questioning, “Now what do you say?” or “What do you do now?” The assistants remind students that you can’t rely on strength, you have to know how to use leverage in order to protect yourself and others from harm and to get control of the situation. The recruits are also taught that any use of force beyond what’s required to handcuff a compliant offender must be documented. Firearms can only be drawn if there’s a threat of lethal action.

 Deputy Director Christopher Bricknell points out that “it’s not just about physicality any more … It used to be that when dealing with a volatile situation, an officer tried to get it over as soon as possible. Now they’re taught that time is your friend. Time makes it possible for an officer to work on de-escalation or to call for a mental health worker if that’s needed.” 

Occasionally students will be evaluated based on their performance in a scenario. One instructor might pose as a well-over-the-limit bar patron. The student may assume the role of an officer who’s been asked to remove the disruptive individual. As they act out the scenario, the evaluating instructor will take note of the skills that are used or not used. Did the student try to engage the “offender”? Did the student remember defensive techniques? Did force have to be used? Did the student use the correct amount of force? While not typical, notes Bricknell, injury during practice can happen. 

“This is why it’s so important for students to get this type of training,” he said. “The last thing the training staff wants is a recruit who uses force incorrectly or inappropriately,” 

Days at the academy can be long and grueling, but these recruits don’t seem fazed. When one student was asked, “What’s the hardest part of being at the academy?” he laughed.

“None of it’s easy … but it’s not harder than I expected it to be … I’m learning how to stretch myself … to hold myself to higher standards.” His classmate, an African American who came to the U.S. when he was eight years old, seems optimistic about his career choice. “I’m not just getting a certificate. I’m learning about a new lifestyle, police officers who are becoming part of the community.”

Deputy Director Bricknell is proud of what the academy does, saying “We provide good training for our students but … we have to rely on their agencies to maintain that training.”

If the academy must depend on strong local agencies to continue the work, it’s good to know the deputy director seems to have confidence in Montpelier. He praises leaders such as Chief Brian Peete who “serve the needs of the community through open communication and transparency.”