For the last three days, law enforcement cadets at Durham Technical Community College in North Carolina have studied the art of criminal investigations. Now, it’s time for their own mock crime scene.
It’s 8:15 a.m. on a chilly October morning and the cadets are split into groups of four inside room 109 at the Durham Tech Orange County Campus. Each group will soon see various crime scenes designed to make students think through different investigation techniques.
Several cadets begin query investigator Ashley Woodlief of the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, who is teaching the class.
“You didn’t have any questions the last three days, but now you’re full of questions,” Woodlief responded.
“The pressure is on because of practicals,” said Cadet Stephen Mills.
“Wait until you put the uniform on,” Woodlief replied. “That’s when the real pressure starts.”
Running through the scenes
Just before 9 a.m., Group Two gets a call.
“Burglary at 123 Main Street,” Woodlief said.
“450 in route,” Cadet Darien Burnside replied.
Group Two enters the burglary scenario in the classroom next door where a Durham Tech EMS student is role playing a victim whose church had been broken into. Each cadet is assigned a different task: filling out the crime scene log, interviewing the victim, taking photographs of the scene, sketching the scene on paper and identifying evidence. They take measurements and then come together at the end for a team meeting, making sure they covered all bases.
Two classrooms down the hall, Group Three investigates the scene of a suspicious death.
“If you’re collecting hair as evidence, does it go into a paper bag or plastic bag?” Woodlief asked.
“Hair can go in either,” Cadet Lesley Guerrero answered. “Liquid forms of DNA are the only type that need to go into a paper bag because they’ll spoil in plastic. Paper bags allow liquid evidence to breathe.”
Cadets rotate through four scenarios the remainder of the day as Woodlief offered feedback and threw questions their way.
Cadets enroll in the academy for different careers, from patrol officers and park rangers to school resource officers and campus police. Each cadet wears a hat embroidered with the initials of their agency. Their destinations differ, but their journeys are the same.
For 21 weeks, 10 hours per day, cadets learn everything from arrest techniques to crowd management and driver training. For some, it’s the first step in their law enforcement career. Like Cadet Guerrero, 21, who worked at an organic grocery store before enrolling in the academy.
“Going from that to this is a big change, but I want to do something with my life and this is what I want to do,” Guerrero said. “I like the challenges, every single day is different here. On Day 2, we were outside doing a plank for five minutes in the rain and as I’m holding the plank I thought what did I sign myself up for? But then I thought I have to do this. I’ve got this.”
For others, they’re advancing their career in law enforcement.
Cadet Travis Wilborn, 27, has been a detention officer at Person County Detention Center for five years, but wants to fill more roles in the county.
“I always wanted to be in law enforcement. When I started working in the jail, I realized this is a good opportunity to help people. Every day is different. It’s not sitting at a desk from 8 to 5, you can get out and help people and patrol the community,” Wilborn said. “This program makes me look at things differently. It teaches you to pay attention to detail and be observant when you’re out in the community. I didn’t think I could learn this much in such a short amount of time.”
Cadet Erin Baker, 24, currently works at Falls Lake State Park and wants to become a park ranger.
“This program has already changed my life drastically. It takes a special kind of woman to be in this profession. Having to take down larger suspects than ourselves is definitely a challenge,” Baker said. “I wanted to join law enforcement to protect the citizens that come into the park.”
Cadet Darien Burnside, 25, currently works for campus police at Duke University, but wants to become a school resource officer with Durham Public Schools.
“I’m the oldest of five siblings and have coached track and football so I’ve always enjoyed helping
kids,” Burnside said. “The most rewarding part of law enforcement is being able to see someone you helped prosper in life. I want to help someone doing well and not just be around when things are bad.”
It takes a village
Corporal Ricky Watson of the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, an instructor, describes the development of future law enforcement as taking a village to raise a child.
“We’ve got instructors from almost every agency in the area that teach at Durham Tech,” Watson said. “Everyone plays a role in this program, including instructors from Carrboro Police Department, Person County Police Department and the Town of Hillsborough.”
He also stresses the importance of the program providing a controlled environment for cadets.
“They have to demonstrate to us that they can physically make an arrest so they have to arrest us,” Watson said. “This is a stress-free, controlled environment so if they can handle this, then that’s the next step for when they go on patrol. But if they can’t handle controlled stress, then how are they going to handle it on the streets when the bad guy is not going to give up?”
Playing a role in future law enforcement officers is rewarding, according to Daniel Roberson, a deputy at Orange County Sheriff’s Office and instructor.
“I enjoy watching them learn and pick up on everything. You can see it when it clicks,” Roberson said. “You see them mature in 21 weeks and get a better understanding of the profession. When they first come in, they have the TV perception, but they come through the academy and get a reality check on what actually ensues.”
Upon completion of the program, the cadets will take the Basic Law Enforcement Training State Comprehensive Exam before being sworn-in at their respective agencies and begin 12 to 16 weeks of field training. A graduation ceremony will take place in January.