DOUGLAS — Three police officers sprinted across a parking lot, then through the doors of a brick building. They thundered down a hallway, up a set of stairs and past a gym.
The cops entered a darkened room, hearts thumping and breathing strained.
They slowed and passed through another doorway in the dark. Without warning, strobe lights flashed off the ceiling. Judas Priest’s “Painkiller” began to blare. Paper targets started to slide by.
The three police ran across the shooting range, grabbing largely compliant suspects. The cops applied cuffs, double checked they were locked and tight, before unlocking the cuffs and releasing their quarries.
The cops were trainees, wearing uniforms but not yet guns.
The drill aimed to put classroom skills into practice. The officers had learned theory and technique. The exercise allowed them to apply those skills in a slightly less controlled — and slightly more stressful — environment: the run was included to induce physiological stress, the police lights flashing near the ceiling might simulate a nightclub and the music was turned on to distract and discomfort the trainees.
Among the three officers participating in the Sept. 28 drill was Taylor Adams, one of seven new cops hired by the Casper Police Department this year. The trainees joined the department as administrators try to fill depleted ranks in an agency with a patrol division that began the year about a third shy of its staffing goals.
By the day of the drill, they were midway through a basic peace officer training course at the Wyoming Law Enforcement Academy here. But the new hires were not yet halfway to being full-fledged patrol officers.
They formally began their applications to the department this spring in Casper, when they underwent a battery of tests, ranging from physical and written exams to oral interviews and background checks. Upon completing the testing process, they were sworn in to the department and sent to the academy.
The cadets will spend a total of 14 weeks in Douglas dorms while they attend the academy’s training, which builds physical skills alongside theory. They begin by learning fundamental skills such as safe gun handling, grappling and how to drive while observing their surroundings.
As the cadets leave classrooms, they’re tested on the book knowledge they’ve learned. They then apply it in low-pressure gymnasium practice. Once they’re competent, those skills are tested in more real-world scenarios like the run through the brick building. Their skills expand and the process repeats with more in-depth learning.
By the end of the course, cadets will also have learned investigatory skills, patrol techniques, traffic control procedures, basic emergency care, administrative skills and some constitutional and case law.
The Casper Police Department’s seven cadets make up nearly a fifth of the academy’s current class, which is scheduled to graduate Nov. 20. Once those officers return to Casper, they won’t immediately hit the street alone. They will receive additional training in department-specific policy and shadow more experienced officers before they are ready to work on their own.
“You can sit in the cockpit of that airplane,” academy Director Chuck Bayne said in one of the many analogies he uses to describe the academy’s methods. “But when it takes off it’s different.”
Casper Police Officer C.J. Glarrow, who has been on the force for two years, described the academy as a solid foundation. The classroom experience is fast-paced, he said, and officers are expected to pick up information quickly.
“It’s a lot of information ... pushed down your throat,” Glarrow said.
Once he hit the street, however, he found he had to learn even more quickly. It’s taken him nearly the extent of his time on the force for things to start feeling like they’re slowing down, Glarrow said.
The Casper agency tends to send large classes to Douglas, and those groups have grown even larger as the department continues a hiring push kicked off in March with Chief Keith McPheeters’ announcement of new hiring incentives. McPheeters introduced the incentive pay as the department’s staffing lost ground to attrition. Although hiring cycles brought in three to five officers, at least as many would leave during the same time period.
The bonuses reward experience, but all hires receive a $3,000 bonus on top of their starting pay, which varies based on experience and educational background.
Former Wyoming officers who let their certification lapse receive a $5,000 bonus. Officers transferring from out-of-state departments are paid a $7,500 bonus in installments over the course of their first two years on the force. Experienced officers in good standing from within Wyoming receive a $12,500 bonus.
Current officers who find a successful candidate receive a smaller bonus, also contingent on the new hire staying with the department.
A parallel advertising campaign targeting police officers has been mostly conducted on social media and websites. The police department has also reached out to private police academies across the country in an attempt to recruit qualified potential officers who haven’t yet landed jobs.
An additional stress on the department’s hiring process came in July, when Natrona County School District officials announced a plan to place more police officers in schools. The number of school resource officers doubled from two to four with the start of the new school year. In the spring semester, another two officers will take on school duties.
The vacated patrol positions will need to be filled, so the department is hiring for 13 open positions. Of those, a handful will be filled by some of the 10 people whose backgrounds the department is now investigating. The candidates will then head down the road to the academy. On Oct. 22, another group of potential recruits will gather in a gymnasium to begin the process. Thus far, 97 people have signed up.
Although not all applicants are likely to show up for the tests, the number who do will likely be much higher than the 30 who tested in March, at the last session before the chief announced the hiring incentives.
Not long before the arrest drill, another group of officers sat in chairs, watching Casper officer Tony Ho pull a plastic gun from his holster.
He watched a video projection of a use-of-force scenario and gunshots rang out from speakers in the small upstairs room. The screen’s view turned a corner and he saw a man crouched over the body of a bleeding police officer.
“Sir, show me your hands,” Ho said, then repeated the phrase twice more.
The man on the screen put his hands up, with no weapon to be seen. He was just trying to help.
The screen went to black and an instructor began questioning Ho about his decision. Would he detain the kneeling man? What constitutional amendment applied? What case law?
Ho’s answers came somewhat slowly, tentatively. He was learning.