Marine Patrol Officer Evan Whidden prepares the patrol boat before going on patrol in Boothbay Harbor on May 14. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Police departments around Maine eager to hire new officers have been forced into a holding pattern after the state’s only police academy shut down in-person training in March and indefinitely delayed the start of the next class of basic law enforcement training for new cops.

Instead of holding a graduation ceremony on May 1 for the 38th Basic Law Enforcement Training class, leaders at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy were sent scrambling to come up with ways to effectively teach policing from afar, forcing the institution to quickly adapt its policies and process, and called off – for now – the start of its next class, which would have arrived in May.

The unprecedented interruption also means that the last crop of 58 cadets to train at the academy in Vassalboro, who were hastily sent home with eight weeks of training left to complete, must now peck away at the remaining training requirements before they are granted full police powers at the departments that hired them.

The training left to be completed is also some of the most critical police will learn, including how to properly arrest and control a person without injuring him or her, along with firearms training and driving instruction.

“This was a real gut punch to a lot of us, but this is what we do, we step up,” Acting Director Rick Desjardins said. “The idea of having a centralized, blended academy (is to) get to that place where everyone has very similar training, and they develop a common language, they develop some cohesion when it comes to a class. We try to as much as we can replicate what life is going to be like when these officers go to work.”

The emergency measures also come at a moment of transition for the academy, whose longtime director, John Rogers, retired at the end of February. Desjardins took the helm two weeks before the new realities of life during a pandemic fully took hold.

Getting the training back on track has required an unprecedented amount of flexibility, and since March, the academy’s leadership team has worked with the governor’s office and the Department of Public Safety to find solutions amid the chaotic, uncertain pandemic response. But there will be elements that are difficult – if not impossible – to replicate outside of the academy, raising the possibility that training for the next crop of cadets may not match what their predecessors experienced.

Marine Patrol Officer Evan Whidden, right, prepares to go on patrol with Sgt. Wes Dean, left, in Boothbay Harbor. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

And it’s not only the police academy training that is affected.

The criminal justice academy also trains part-time officers and corrections staff, and administers basic aptitude tests and physical fitness exams that are prerequisites to enter any law enforcement field. Those tests have been suspended, while prescheduled corrections training and training of part-time police are continuing with adherence to COVID-19 social distancing protocols.

What will change and what beneficial experiences may be lost as the academy adapts to social distancing has yet to be seen. It was too soon for leaders to discuss how a residential program may evolve to accommodate Maine CDC guidelines in the future.

But there are basic aspects of police training that have already been made impossible by the early breakup of the training class.

Like most police training programs, Maine conducts a stress academy. Cadets live in dormitory-style accommodations, and rotate roommate pairings regularly. Instructors have access to cadets around the clock. Beyond theory and coursework, an important goal of academy training is to accustom cadets to high-pressure, high-stress situations, said Public Safety Commissioner Michael Sauschuck.

Marine Patrol Officer Evan Whidden stands for a portrait on the patrol boat May 14. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“We talk about building muscle memory for brand new professionals, and the last thing you want to see happen is someone starts working the streets themselves and at 2 a.m. they run into a situation, or a stress level that they’ve never experienced before,” Sauschuck said. “We think it’s imperative that we build some of that stress inoculation into these training scenarios.”

Sauschuck complimented Desjardins’ leadership, and said everyone in public safety has been forced into making changes they never thought possible.

“They really have stepped up,” said Sauschuck, the former chief of the Portland Police Department before he was named commissioner by Gov. Janet Mills.”We’ve talked about working outside the box; we don’t even know where the box is. They’re so far above and beyond what we used to do.”

Police academy training is only the first phase of instruction for most new police officers. Some agencies – including the Maine State Police and the Maine Marine Patrol – require a secondary school, where they receive additional instruction on agency policies and standards, along with more study of the specific areas of laws they will be enforcing. Police departments then pair new officers with a field training officer who acts as a direct supervisor and on-the-job teacher during a new police officer’s first weeks on duty.

One of the class members, Evan Whidden, 25, of Thomaston, who is now an officer with the Maine Marine Patrol, said cadets were generally unaware of the extent of the pandemic until it interrupted their program. Cadets don’t have access to their cellphones or internet service, he said, and the first whiff of what was to come came when an instructor mentioned the difficulty finding toilet paper.

“I didn’t want (the training) to stop,” Whidden said. “We were going to get into the fun parts of the academy, going to the gun range and driving and field sobriety stuff, so it was all kind of up in the air.”

When it became clear that a disruption to their training was imminent, administrators at the academy told cadets what was happening and starting making arrangements for a transition, Whidden said. In some ways, it exemplifies what police must do every day: enter an unknown situation, assess the situation and make quick decisions.

“When this first started, no one had a plan,” Whidden said. “We’ve never had a coronavirus before or any other kind of virus. But (the instructors) let us know every step of the way, they let us know what they knew. They didn’t just say go home and wait. They had plans immediately.”

Whidden is now assigned as captain of a patrol boat based out of Boothbay Harbor, and is under the supervision of Sgt. Wesley Dean, his field training officer. Dean said he’s had to adapt, as well, now that more training responsibilities have filtered down to him.

Whidden said he completed his firearms training and qualification through the Marine Patrol, but he’s still waiting to find out when and how he will complete the mechanics of arrest and restraint, driving courses, and field sobriety units.

Marine Patrol Officer Evan Whidden, left, and Sgt. Wes Dean get ready to go out on patrol in Boothbay Harbor on May 14. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“Personally, I think it’s been a test for everybody,” Dean said. “The state’s got a lot of good instructors, and they’re coming together to get it done. It’s a longer process, but it’s a process that the academy doesn’t want to rush. I think it’s going as well as it could, given the situation.”

The 38th police training class was supposed to graduate May 1, but instead, they are now scattered around the state, training on the job at the departments that hired them. The class canceled its graduation ceremony, where family, friends and other cops gather to celebrate and welcome the freshly certified officers into the fold.

They wear their department uniforms, carry weapons and enforce local and state laws, but they are operating under a reduced legal certification equivalent to being a part-time police officer. Many people who want a career in law enforcement first earn their part-time certification before entering the academy. Part-time officers play an essential role in staffing departments in small communities that see an explosion of residents during the summer months, and it is often a springboard into full-time police work.

The academy’s board of trustees, which sets the training standards statewide, voted to give 22 cadets in the disrupted class a waiver so they did not have to complete the separate part-time police training course, acknowledging that the 11 weeks of training already under their belts was equivalent to the classroom and hands-on instruction that part-time status requires.

But police instructors and state administrators are still grappling with how to teach those hands-on, close-contact skills that every cop requires, but without the convenience of the specialized residential campus in Vassalboro where every officer in Maine has been trained since 2000.

Marine Patrol Officer Evan Whidden, right, and Sgt. Wes Dean go out on patrol in Boothbay Harbor on May 14. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The academy adopted a distance learning platform for classroom work, one of the ready-made solutions that have already been widely adopted by schools and colleges around the country. The academy also developed protocols for cadets to either take exams at their police department proctored by a supervisor, or to take tests at home, trusting that no officer would cheat or bend the rules.

But the remaining training that does not fit neatly into digital learning methods includes some of the most important skills police must master – the safe handling of firearms, tactical driving, conducting field-sobriety tests, proper arrest and hand-to-hand combat techniques, and the appropriate use of force.

Social distancing protocols mean they must complete that work without the benefit of the standardized academy setting.

While some of the skills are more conducive to distance learning than others – the theory of field sobriety tests, for instance, can be taught through video instruction and limited in-person testing and practice – it’s nearly impossible through a Zoom meeting to teach someone how to safely shoot a weapon, find cover and concealment and apply a tourniquet while under fire.

To solve the problem, agencies with their own private firing ranges have entered into agreements with the academy to host small group training sessions on proper firearm handling techniques.

The driving portion poses unique challenges, as well.

Cadets and instructors typically rent time at the Norridgewock airport, where they turn the runway into a specialized closed driving course on which there is no risk to the public if a cadet spins out of control or makes a mistake. There is no substitute for learning the feel of how a car changes direction, stops or turns in extreme conditions, and instructors must also be in the front seat with cadets to assess their skills and correct mistakes. It means that cadets, at some point, will have to return to the training field together to complete the qualifications, Desjardins said.

“That’s going to be a very difficult one, which we’re going to have to do once we get lessened restrictions,” he said.

And perhaps the most problematic class in light of social distancing requirements are courses that teach cadets how to take control of a combative person without injury to themselves or the person they’re seeking to arrest. This course – the mechanics of arrest, restraint and control – is among the most physically demanding for cadets, and requires close contact practice and sparring.

“In the current conditions that we’re in, we can’t safely do that,” Desjardins said.

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