Police recruits sweat the details
Academy trains officers for 81 area departments
SCHENECTADY Sometimes it’s good to sweat the small stuff.
For recruits at the Zone 5 Law Enforcement Training Academy, it’s a really good idea to sweat the small stuff — all of the small stuff.
That includes a weed growing from a crack in the sidewalk outside the training facility on Erie Boulevard or a cigarette butt carelessly flicked at the building by a passing motorist. It means being acutely punctual, showing up five days a week in full uniform, posting the colors each morning and standing at attention when academy trainers are present.
Even something seemingly slight — like leaving an unattended training binder open — can draw discipline. Assistant Director Jim Bottillo took quick note of the three open binders as he visited a classroom while the recruits were eating lunch last week.
Between the open binders at the four-seat table was another that remained closed. Bottillo glanced at the name tag and quickly determined the recruit would also face reprimand just like the other three, since she’s their squad leader.
“The strictness needs to be in place with little, if any, deviation because of the job these recruits are going to do,” Bottillo, a retired Troy police officer, said during a tour of the facility.
For instance, an officer filling out a police report who leaves the task unattended and in the view of others can inadvertently divulge personal information. Another officer noticing this mistake but failing to correct the situation is just as culpable.
Attention to detail is just one of the blocks needed to build the foundation for a successful career in law enforcement. Recruits going through the grueling six-month training at the Zone 5 academy also need to realize the human side of policing — when to use discretion and how to keep emotions in check.
“It’s not always about getting handcuffs on them,” said Kurt Conroy, a detective lieutenant with the Amsterdam Police Department who has trained at the academy since 1995. “It’s not always about the arrest.”
They also need to understand a career in policing encompasses responsibilities that carry over long after a shift has ended. Those responsibilities hold officers to a different and higher set of standards when they’re off-duty.
“You’ll never find another profession where you can take life and freedom,” Conroy said. “Realizing that is huge.”
Attending the academy is serious business not undertaken by those who are faint of heart or light of constitution. In all, the recruits undergo roughly 1,300 hours of training that ranges from learning the state’s criminal procedure law to learning the most effective methods of taking a combative person into custody.
The academy also includes a growing section of training aimed at getting the young recruits to understand that the choices they make on and off the job can be critical to their careers. Recruits, Bottillo said, are quickly taught to operate as if they are working under a magnifying glass.
“Character is defined by how you act when you’re not being watched,” he said.
Zone 5 was initially established during the 1950s but without a formal training center or structured curriculum. Recruits didn’t wear uniforms, and there were no standard policies or procedures. The training was done informally by off-duty officers from departments throughout the zone.
But by the 1980s, the need for a more structured training environment became apparent. The academy took up residence in an old seminary building on the Hudson Valley Community College campus in Troy in 1988, a move that greatly increased the formal nature of the training.
In 1998, the academy’s Board of Directors tapped Patrick Smith, a former assistant chief with the Schenectady Police Department, as the first full-time director. The academy under Smith also took its first steps toward finding a location of its own, ultimately landing in 2005 on Erie Boulevard in Schenectady, in the former hall for Local 311 of the International Union of Electrical Workers-Communication Workers of America.
The renovated hall has since graduated hundreds of officers now serving in the 81 departments in 10 counties comprising Zone 5. The facility graduates two classes a year, in addition to shorter training programs for campus security officers and prison guards.
Smith retired in January after the 53rd class graduated. Now Bottillo, the longtime instructor who was appointed the first assistant director in 2011, is guiding the facility’s 54th class.
Training for police recruits is demanding both mentally and physically. The six-month program more than doubles the hours of basic course training mandated by the state, and graduates are required to be at a much higher percentile of physical fitness based on the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research standard — a baseline used by many law enforcement agencies.
Classes last eight hours a day, five days a week. Recruits get a day off from training only on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
The standard day starts shortly before 8 a.m. Recruits do what is referred to as a “fire check” throughout the academy, inspecting the perimeter for any problems and to ensure the facility is clean.
Each morning and afternoon, they have a brief ceremony to post the flags outside the building. And in between, they’re subjected to a combination of classroom training and rigorous physical exercise.
Graduating from the academy is no guarantee. Recruits face a tough standard and certain pitfalls can disqualify them automatically.
Lying, for instance, is a sure way to get booted. Bottillo said no amount of deception is tolerated and even a small lie told to an instructor can be the basis for removal.
Similarly, ethics training is taking an increasing role in the academy. Nearly a week of training is devoted to teaching the prospective officers acceptable conduct on the force, including an emphasis on their behavior outside of work.
Ed Frank, a retired deputy chief for the Colonie Police Department, runs a program that connects disgraced officers with recruits to teach them the drastic impact one poor decision can have on their careers. Some of the volunteer speakers have been removed from a force, while others have simply faced discipline.
“It’s a life change,” Bottillo said. “Minute one when these guys hit the deck with a drill instructor, this is impressed upon them.”
Recruits are also challenged to take an interactive approach to law enforcement, The concept of community policing is strongly supported in the training, meaning recruits are urged to walk the community where they are patrolling and interact with the public.
“They are an important part of the community they’re policing,” Conroy said. “We try to teach them that there’s nothing wrong with getting out of the cruiser and walking around when you’re not on a call.”
Despite the rigid rules, the academy is also about getting the recruits to open up to instructors in an adverse environment, said Troy police Capt. John Cooney, another veteran instructor. The recruits, some of whom may be in their 30s, don’t always find training under the barking orders of a drill instructor easy to tolerate. But it doesn’t get any easier on the job, Cooney said.
The training helps prepare recruits for a time when they will encounter someone who is less than amicable.
“To have a drill instructor in your face and to have to grin and bear it may very well translate to an on-the-job situation,” he said.
The recruits are keenly aware of the uphill battle they face to get on the force, and few have any illusions about the challenge the academy presents. Some candidly admit they didn’t realize how difficult it would be, the amount of knowledge they’d need to cram into six months or the scrutiny they’d be under.
“It’s like everyone has a magnifying glass on them,” said 20-year-old Jordan Harrington, a prospective deputy hoping to join the Albany County Sheriff’s Department.
At 34, Marc Kent is the oldest member of his class. The one-time laborer knew he was in for a tough haul when he sought a job with the Albany Police Department, but he never envisioned the taxing time ahead.
“I don’t think you can prepare yourself for this,” he said.
The challenge, however, is something that drives the recruits. Some also realize the physical and mental punishment they take at the command of their instructors also has a higher purpose — one that will ultimately help them to succeed if they can make it to graduation.
“Everything they do has a purpose,” said Jesse Smith, a 22-year-old aspiring to be an Albany County sheriff’s deputy. “It’s not easy, but if it were, it probably wouldn’t be worth it.”