Students in the West Shore Community College Police Academy were right on track to graduate in May. Their final weeks of the program were devoted to discussing police procedures and criminal investigations, learning the proper use of firearms and working out in preparation for their final physical fitness tests. They’d begun imagining the satisfying careers they’d soon begin.
Then the COVID-19 health crisis changed everything.
“When it hit, we scrambled to deal with the challenges,” recalled John O’Hagan, academy director and associate professor of criminal justice. In Mid-March, in an effort to help flatten the coronavirus curve, on-campus classes were suspended and many of the courses turned to online learning.
Adapting to new ways of interacting during Zoom lectures took some getting used to, and students and instructors agreed it wasn’t the best way to learn practical skills. The classes were suspended for a month while faculty and administrators explored the best ways to resume face-to-face instruction.
“The police academy curriculum includes traffic stops, subject control, emergency vehicle operation — things that require us to be within three feet of each other,” explained O’Hagan, former Manistee County sheriff. “After that first week of being online, there were no other courses we could do, and I had to suspend the academy.”
But O’Hagan and his colleagues were determined to find a way to continue. “These students had worked and saved and done everything they could to finish college,” he said. “They were counting on finding work right away so they could start paying off their debts and have insurance and take care of their families. I wasn’t going to let them just fall away.”
During the month that students were off campus, O’Hagan instituted semiweekly Zoom meetings and brought in guest speakers who discussed job opportunities in various areas of law enforcement.
In mid-May, classes resumed at the Riemer Regional Public Safety Training Center on U.S. 31. “Everyone was ready and excited,” O’Hagan said. Students picked up where they’d left off, despite changes in daily protocol: face masks — including special masks and face shields worn during driving events — daily temperature checks when entering the building, social distancing in break rooms and classrooms, and for the instructors, lecturing for over two hours in a mask. “This class told me, ‘We’ll do anything we have to get through this,’ and I said, ‘I’ll do anything I can to make it happen.’”
“These were a great group of very motivated recruits,” said Lauren Kreinbrink, criminal justice instructor. “I felt that once we resumed, they didn’t miss a beat. They were ready and motivated to finish the academy and make the most of it. They said that these circumstances motivated them even more to be the positive police officers we need.”
Some students put the shutdown period to good advantage. “The academy requires physical tests,” explained Joshua Pomorski ’20. “But speed is not my friend when it comes to running. That was difficult. But the two months off gave me the time to train. That really helped me come back and pass that test with a good time.”
“It was inspiring to see that instead of feeling discouraged, students channeled these difficult circumstances into something positive,” said Kreinbrink. “They give me hope that we have people who want to make a positive difference in law enforcement.”
Current events come to the classroom
Challenges of the pandemic weren’t the only thing to impact the academy this spring.
“Right after things went down in Minnesota [the arrest of a police officer in the death of George Floyd], the very next day we were talking about it in the classroom,” said O’Hagan. “We don’t teach a chokehold here.”
Academy students are taught that the main purpose of law enforcement is to serve the community and protect lives and property. “They’re always taught safety first,” said O’Hagan. “Theirs is a tough job which requires constant training.”
The West Shore curriculum includes topics from investigation to patrol procedures to detention, prosecution, and police skills and covers sensitive areas such as de-escalation, bias, and cultural competency.
Policing in rural northern Michigan is demanding in its own way, O’Hagan stressed. “You need to know everyone in your community,” he said. “We like to be out there shaking hands, walking in our communities. In a small town, we can do a lot of that, where in the big city, there are so many officers and so many different assignments, it’s a different culture. They’re like a number. Here, you know everybody that you work with. And the community gets to know you. I teach interpersonal skills. I teach integrity, that if someone’s in trouble, to step in immediately to render assistance.”
Poised for success
“One of the biggest challenges was our graduation,” said Kyli Cressel-Rogers 20. “We were looking forward to having friends and family there to support us. But the director and the other people involved in our academy did everything they could to make it as special as they could.”
“We had a goal,” O’Hagan said. “It didn’t matter what was thrown at us — we were going to try to reach it, and we did. I’m very proud of this group.”
“This program is intense without COVID-19 playing a factor and our students were amazing,” said Christy Christmas, dean of occupational programs. “Along with John, the dedicated adjunct faculty members, who shared their skill and knowledge with our recruits, are to be commended for their commitment to getting this class of recruits to a successful completion. They, too, were amazing and the students recognized their sacrifice.”
The 2020 academy graduation ceremony may have been virtual, but it was no less meaningful than an in-person gathering. Perhaps it was a bit more meaningful considering the obstacles the class had worked to overcome. On June 18, 11 students received law enforcement certificates from West Shore Community College and are now eligible for police licensure from the State of Michigan.
The graduates are Kyli Cressell-Rodgers, Albert Mendez, Emily Paulsen, Joshua Pomorski, Austin Priese, Noah Robart, Catrina Saylor, Jeffrey Soraruf, Aaron Facundo, Brandon TenHove, and Trevor Thrailkill.
Most plan to seek career placement in the area and neighboring counties. “One reason a lot of them wanted to go into law enforcement was to give back to their community,” said O’Hagan. “Yes, you hear about the negativity toward the police, but there’s so much good. Most law enforcement officers have the heart the size of Montana. It’s unbelievable what they would do to risk their lives for people.”