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SALT LAKE CITY — Giovanny Black had always planned to go into law enforcement — someday.
But the police academy felt far away, both figuratively and literally. Living in rural Blanding in southeastern Utah, an hour and a half away from the nearest Walmart and a full three hours from the nearest academy, joining the force would mean quitting his job and driving hours back and forth on the weekends for months to earn his Peace Officer Standards and Training certification.
As it turned out, he didn’t have to do either of those things.
Black is one of a handful of graduates of a new Utah State University program that lets aspiring law enforcement officers in rural Utah earn their POST certification through online night classes. The program, which also incorporates hands-on training with local law enforcement, is aimed at helping small, isolated departments hire more people who already live and work in their communities.
Across the U.S., law enforcement agencies of all sizes are struggling to recruit and retain qualified candidates. For small, rural police forces, those challenges are worse.
At a time when larger departments are increasingly competing for experienced officers by offering bonuses and other incentives, smaller forces rarely have the resources to woo already-certified candidates from out of town. And in places like Blanding, located hours away from the nearest police academy, it can be expensive and time consuming to send inexperienced local hires away for training.
But technological advances are opening new doors for rural departments. Online certification classes create a smoother path for rural departments to hire and certify local people who already have ties to the community, and who may be more inclined to stay with the department long term.
Black, 21, is now a corrections officer with the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office. He has no plans to leave his hometown, and hopes to be a patrol deputy someday.
"I just love it here," Black said. "I wanted to give back to the community that helped raise me."
This is cutting-edge stuff. If those home-grown candidates have the ability to stay in their community, to invest in their community while they’re going through the academy, that’s gold.
–- Brett Meade, senior program manager, National Police Foundation.
The USU online academy may be the first of its kind in the country, criminal justice experts say, and could serve as a model for other communities.
"This is cutting-edge stuff," said Brett Meade, senior program manager at the National Police Foundation in Washington, D.C. "If those home-grown candidates have the ability to stay in their community, to invest in their community while they’re going through the academy, that’s gold."
The inaugural class of the Blanding academy, sworn in as peace officers in April after about eight months of training, gathered each weeknight to watch a lecture broadcast live from the Eastern Police Officer Academy, a satellite POST academy in Price. Through interactive video technology, Blanding cadets could ask questions of the instructor, providing virtually the same experience as being in the classroom.
The online lectures were complemented with hands-on training in skills such as defensive tactics and using highway radar devices with officers from the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office, Blanding Police Department and other local agencies.
Going into the training, Black said he already knew some of the officers who would be teaching him, including an officer with the Blanding Police Department who had been Black’s wrestling coach in high school. These personal connections made Black feel more confident and comfortable going through training, he said.
"I wasn’t afraid to ask questions," Black said. "It was so much easier for me having these guys that I’d known and looked up to for so long training me."
Before the online program, the Blanding Police Department sent its new hires to Salt Lake City for training — a five-hour drive each way for candidates with homes and families in San Juan County.
For rural departments and trainees, travel time and money can quickly add up and become unfeasible, according to Scott Henrie, a criminal justice professor at USU and director of the Eastern Peace Officer Academy.
"It’s those small areas that absolutely don’t have the budget or the ability for people to just leave there," Henrie said.
The remote system does require some travel back and forth to Price for certain kinds of training, but the bulk of the certification classes and hands-on training take place right in San Juan County, a more convenient arrangement for local hires. While going through the academy, Black was able to keep his former job as a physical therapy aide, working during the day and tuning into training classes at night.
Blanding Police Chief J.J. Bradford sees certain benefits to hiring officers who already have roots in the community, such as a potentially smoother transition and, in some cases, a more effective police force.
"They understand the local people, the traditions, the customs, and they tend to fit in well with the people they’re going to be working with," Bradford said. "They know the area, so they have a better response time and can take care of things a little quicker."
They also may be more likely to stick around longer. It’s not uncommon for a hire from out of town to leave after only a year or two, San Juan County Sheriff Jason Torgerson said.
"When people get here, they realize how remote it is," Torgerson said. "It doesn’t work for everybody."
Of the six graduates who just completed the course in Blanding, four have found employment since graduation, including a former corrections officer with the San Juan County Sheriff's Office who is now working as a police officer with the Blanding Police Department. Other graduates of the Blanding program include a Tooele native who was living in Blanding but has since moved back home to work for the Tooele Police Department.
Next year, Henrie said, the university plans to hold another academy in Blanding and hopes to expand the program into Moab.
Bradford said he has "mixed feelings" about participating in the online program in the future. He isn’t sure the cadets who trained in Blanding took away all the same experiences they would have had they attended the police academy in Salt Lake City, living in dormitories with other cadets and going through long, more strictly regimented days.
"But (the program) does benefit us at this time," Bradford said.
Sometimes, Black said, he thinks about "what-ifs" — What if he had gone to a traditional police academy? What if he had left Blanding and joined a department elsewhere?
But "working here, where I’m from, it just feels better to me," Black said. "To me, there’s a special feeling working for the community you grew up in. It’s more meaningful."