WTVM Special Report: Before the badge

WTVM Special Report: Before the badge

COLUMBUS, GA (WTVM) - There have been a number of police-involved shootings nationwide that have sparked outrage lately.

It's brought police training into question, so we wanted to see how new Columbus police officers are being prepared to protect and serve.

The extensive hiring process includes background checks, polygraphs and testing - just to get in the pool for interviews.

Once hired, it's at least 30 weeks of training.

Columbus police gave us exclusive access as we take you inside that process in our special report "Before the Badge."

Practicing precision on the firing range before they go to the police academy, these just-hired Columbus officers hope to be on target and keep their jobs after seven to eight months of total training.

"The recruit officers come in the door and you can kinda see the deer in the headlights look sometimes," said Lt. Tim Wynn with the Columbus Police Department.

Their expressions changed a lot during tazer training but the new cops are earning their badges, including Virginia Duncan.

"This job is life or death," Virginia said.

She wants to help people, but admits she's never been in a fight.

"I had never shot a gun or held a gun before I started this a couple months ago," Virginia said.

"They need the advantage to be familiar with a weapon, be familiar with what they can do, how to use cover, how to use kneeling positions," said Sgt. Robert Cox, Columbus Police firearms and recruitment coordinator.

The new officers practice shooting day and night, from different angles and distances.

The goal is to pass a strict Georgia standards course, but ultimately to also be ready if they're ever called upon to use deadly force.

"I think sometimes, the public feels like they give police officers badges and say go forth and enforce laws, but there's a ton of training that goes into it," said Christopher Snipes, a new Columbus police officer.

"They're required to know what's around them and what's beyond their target, for example innocent bystanders," Sgt. Cox said.

"They always say train as you fight, so it is muscle memory," said Issac Neal III, a former soldier and new Columbus police officer. "The more you train, the better you are."

Isaac got firsthand experiences with some of those.

"If you're exposed to it [pepper spray], you need to know how it feels and the stuff you're going to expose other people to...so it is a necessary evil," Issac said.

Before hitting the streets, Issac and his fellow recruits had to be tazed and also sprayed with OC or pepper spray.

It brought back memories of Jason Dennis being tazed as a WTVM reporter for a story 12 years ago.

One purpose of this tazer training is so the new officers don't abuse the non-lethal weapon.

"The anxiety killed me," said Misty Parrish, a new Columbus police officer. "The tazer was bad... but it was five seconds and it was over immediately."

Columbus police train 30 to 45 new officers each year.

"They come back to us after graduation from the academy, and from there, standardized field sobriety test, DUI detection, and their speed radar training," Lt. Wynn said.

"A lot more challenging than what I expected it to be," Christopher said.

"We cover building searches, field searches, and we cover traffic stops, day and night," Lt. Wynn said.

During in-house training, the new ones in blue also learn defensive tactics at the Academy in Columbus including how to make an arrest, specifics like instructions to the suspects and handcuffing properly.

Instructors also give a high-tech lesson in the use of deadly force, with FATS or the Firearms Training Simulator. They gave us a shot at it.

Just like new officers, they put us through several real-life scenarios displayed on a screen, like a kidnapper swinging a machete at me.

You have to make judgment calls of when to shoot.

From firearms to everything else, we asked if training has changed in response to recent uproar over some police shootings nationwide.

"That's why we do the extensive training we do is for that – accountability," Lt. Wynn said.

He says ethics, character, courage under fire, and treating everyone with respect is part of that training.

"What would you do if your mother or father was watching, that's a good trigger mechanism, or your wife or your kids," Lt. Wynn said.

They spend many days in the classroom, learning public relations, constitutional and case law, plus Columbus police department policies and procedures.

"If we don't have a good understanding of the law, we may violate somebody's rights as we don't want to do that," Christopher said.

The director of training for Columbus Police says they do not teaching new officers to "Shoot to Kill" but to stop, deescalate, capture.

He says one of the most gratifying parts of his job is seeing how the recruits are polished at the end of the rigorous training.

One just-hired officer tells us, if they follow the core values of honor, courage and commitment... they'll do the right thing in the line of duty.

Join the conversation on social media by using the #beforethebadge.

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