Billings Police Officer Joseph Dickerson slowly makes his way down a long, empty hallway with closed doors lining either side.
His gun, a .40 caliber Glock Model 22, is raised in front of him as he carefully reaches toward one door to shake the handle.
It’s locked. Dickerson motions for his partner to try the next door while he covers for him.
Both men are focused. Everything is at stake during their training at the Montana State Law Enforcement Academy in Helena. For now, it’s a job that’s on the line, but once the officers start patrolling the streets, it could be their life or the life of a fellow officer that’s in danger.
Trainers say it’s about building trust and common ground.
“We’ve got police, sheriff’s deputies, game wardens and livestock inspectors out here,” said Rick Layng, academy training instructor. “They will all know how it’s supposed to be done, so they can share that common experience.”
The class is halfway through the academy’s 12-week program. Dickerson, 30, was sworn in with the Billings Police Department on Sept. 7, along with fellow officers Cory Kirkpatrick, 21, of Billings, and Jeremy Boeckel, 29, of Missoula.
The class has spent the majority of its time in the classroom. The 37 officers from agencies across the state were given the opportunity to put that knowledge to the test in hands-on training situations last Monday.
Dickerson’s group spent that day focusing on building searches, but first its members had to pass a midterm — a physical fitness test.
“They always get butterflies,” said Layng, who has trained new officers at the academy for the past 7ƒ years.
The new officers must complete an obstacle course six times within 5 minutes, 30 seconds to move on in the academy. It is the same test they had to complete at the beginning of training, and they will have to do again at the end of their program.
Officers who are too slow are sent home.
Everyone passed the midterm. One officer even set the state record, completing the course in 2 minutes, 56 seconds.
Dickerson finished the course of hurdles, a balance beam and strength exercises in 4 minutes, 20 seconds.
“It wasn’t as fast as some, but I passed,” Dickerson said.
Originally located in Bozeman, the Law Enforcement Academy moved to the outskirts of Helena in 1996. The campus was formerly a women’s reform school called the Mountain View School for Women.
The academy has four dorm areas for the officers — three for men and one for women — with enough room for up to 60 officers at a time during the three 12-week training sessions offered each year.
After each practical exercise, the officers meet up with the trainers to discuss what worked, what didn’t work and what they would do differently. The trainers have experience in a variety of law enforcement positions.
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Monday, Dickerson and two other officers practiced approaching a suspect from around a corner. The officers created a space with mats set up on their sides.
One officer stood inside the semicircle mat posing as a suspect hidden from view of Dickerson, who used the “slice the pie” method to investigate. With his gun drawn, Dickerson slowly circled his way and scanned the opening in the mat with each step until he saw the hidden officer.
“Police department! Don’t move! Don’t move!” Dickerson shouted, aiming at his suspect. “I am an officer with the Billings Police Department. Put your hands in front of you.”
The suspect complied with Dickerson’s orders and slowly made his way into view. He turned around and dropped to his knees as Dickerson placed him in handcuffs.
They repeated the process until was done right, while training officers interjected advice.
“Don’t machine gun stuff out,” Training Officer Jim Thomas said to the group. “Talk slow.”
Taking it in
The experience is pretty close to what Dickerson expected going in.
“It’s all been really good stuff,” Dickerson said. “I’ve learned in the classroom a lot and what little we’ve done hands-on. … I’m looking forward to the driving stuff.”
Officers will spend the next several weeks completing driving tests, scenario training and defensive tactics. They also will spend ample time at the firing range.
Dickerson spent most of that first day of training teamed up with Kirkpatrick. Layng said they like to team officers up with people from the same or neighboring agencies when they can.
At the end of the day, the officers are able to retreat to their own room, which Dickerson said can be a relief.
“It’s nice to be by yourself,” he said. “You can go and collect yourself.”
Officers who make it through academy training will graduate Dec. 10. Before they can celebrate, they have to complete the obstacle course the day before and a 9-mile run that morning.
For now, Dickerson is just taking in the whole experience.
“It started off a little slow, but things are picking up these last couple weeks,” Dickerson said. “With so many different agencies here, you get to hear how they work as opposed to yours. That’s really interesting.”
Contact Chelsea Krotzer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 657-1392.