In Western North Carolina, the first step to becoming a law enforcement officer is usually to seek out sponsorship from an agency — generally a local police station or sheriff’s office. While not strictly necessary, sponsorship acts as a tuition waiver for basic law enforcement training, and also gets a potential LEO’s foot in the door.
However, sponsorship is not a guarantee of employment, said Haywood County’s Chief Deputy Jeff Haynes.
“We sponsor someone and send them to Basic Law Enforcement Training — that does not mean we’re going to hire them,” he said.
It’s worth noting that to even gain sponsorship, a candidate must submit to a partial background check.
The most widely known step in the hiring process is Basic Law Enforcement Training, or BLET. This training can be delivered by many state-certified community colleges — including Haywood Community College and Southwestern Community College — though there are separate academies purely for police training. BLET curriculum — as set by the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Education and Training Standards Commission and the Criminal Justice Education & Training Standards Commission — covers 36 areas of law enforcement work, including law enforcement driver training, motor vehicle laws, search and seizure, arrest procedure and constitutional law. Haynes emphasized the focus many instructors place on judgment and ethics.
“It’s about your ability to follow direction, your ability to comply with general statutes, your ability to understand the constitutionality of what you’re doing, to understand the magnitude and importance of what’s being bestowed upon you once you do complete this training,” he said.
Over the course of those four to five months, trainees are perpetually evaluated by their instructors and also by prospective employers.
“I always tell new BLET students,” said Haynes, “from this day forward, you are in a constant job interview. Because all of the instructors are also deputy sheriffs and police officers and highway patrolmen that work day to day with the command staff of different agencies.”
Those who successfully complete BLET are eligible to complete the certification process, which involves an extensive written test, physical exam and psychological screening. Only after certification can a candidate enter the hiring process.
There’s a viral claim online that law enforcement training requires fewer hours than other skilled professions, including cosmetology. This is only partly true: while N.C. BLET mandates 640 hours to Cosmetology’s 1,200 hours, a graduate is in no way finished with their training. BLET is meant to give a comprehensive introduction to police work, but nearly all agencies have a field training program set for their new hires.
“Basic Law Enforcement Training and the Detention Officer Course are just that, basic in nature,” said Sheriff Robert Holland of Macon County. “They were set up to provide training to the new officer/recruit in order to prepare them to enter the field of law enforcement/corrections. An agency must have a structured Field Training Program (F.T.O.) in place to properly train an officer after their hire in.”
Haynes described field training as something like an apprenticeship. A newly hired, certified officer — after being subjected to a full background check — shadows a more senior officer or deputy and continues to learn while on the job. Field training is of similar length to BLET, though intensity and duration are contingent on a given agency’s location, the new hire’s experience level and available resources. Only after field training is complete can an officer patrol alone.
The entire training period — from first application for sponsorship to the completion of field training — is designed to be as rigorous and stressful as possible. It’s seen as an arena for prospective cops to react under pressure.
Haynes says while most applicants to the force are well-meaning and morally sound, it takes a special kind of person to do the job consistently and well.
“I very rarely, in my 30-plus years doing this, have seen any moral issues in that time. I’ve seen a lot of judgment issues, just like you could in journalism or medicine or law,” Haynes said. “Everyone’s not meant to be a journalist. Everyone’s not meant to be a surgeon or a teacher. We’re all blessed with certain gifts. We just have to find those gifts and refine those gifts so that we can produce what we should.”
Entry-level police work is difficult, low-paying and often thankless. Sheriff Holland described the starting pay in western counties as “disgraceful.” Under years of continual strain, those not truly cut out for law enforcement tend to crack. It’s vital for instructors, screeners and command staff to sort out the wheat from proverbial chaff during the training period — before the job’s strain begins to take a toll.
Both Haynes and Holland feel that the cases of police brutality across the country should be first viewed at an individual level. After all, the most recent data shows that roughly 53 million people a year have contact with law enforcement (Bureau of Justice Statistics); in 2019, only 28 were fatally shot. That’s nowhere close to statistically representative in terms of systemic police brutality. To put that ratio in perspective; lightning strikes the U.S. 25 million times a year and kills an average of 49 people (National Weather Service). An unarmed American has a far better chance of being killed in a thunderstorm than they do by a cop.
“Each case is different,” Holland said. “I don’t think that all incidents can be isolated to one exact cause. Is the officer experiencing depression? Burnout? How is department morale? Was it in fact police brutality? Was the use of force used by the officer justified but portrayed differently by the media? Each case needs to be investigated and examined on a case-by-case basis.”
“Yes, there are bad law enforcement officers,” added Haynes. “It’s just the human element. I think it is very irresponsible to categorize an entire profession in a sweeping broad statement that everybody is that way. You could say that about any profession. Or any ethnic group. Or any religious organization.”
However, both believe that law enforcement can collectively improve. While fatal shootings are the most devastating form of police violence, they aren’t the only measure of flaws in the system. It’s worth examining racial statistics to this end. A widely published Harvard study found that while there is no evidence to suggest that police kill Black people at a greater rate than white people, African Americans are 53% more likely to be subjected to nonlethal force. This seems damning, though is muddied somewhat by the usual issues of response bias that confound all such research. Data on police violence are as of yet scant, and much more is needed before final conclusions can be made.
“I certainly understand the national concern and the national spotlight that’s been put on law enforcement and I simply do feel that there is always room for improvement,” Haynes said. “I don’t think those complaints fall on deaf ears. I think law enforcement knows that we’re constantly under a microscope. And we’re constantly looking at one another and trying our best to police our own because it’s an honorable profession. It always has been and we want to maintain that integrity, and we do that by policing our own. But there are occasions where that doesn’t occur. And those people are either disciplined, or they’re brought to justice and charged criminally, or de-certified, just like any other profession.”
Laura Brewer, communications director at the North Carolina Justice Academy, spoke on some concrete changes to BLET curriculum that are in progress.
“Right now, we are in the midst of a BLET revision based on recent job task analysis. That includes added content related to procedural justice, implicit bias and police legitimacy,” she said. “At the same time, Attorney General (Josh) Stein — who leads the Department of Justice — has been appointed a co-chair of Gov. Roy Cooper’s Task Force on Racial Equity and Police Accountability. We expect that they will review training and may have additional directives as their work continues.”
Sheriff Holland believes the way to improvement lies in strengthening law enforcement’s relationship with its community.
“I believe that the agency as a whole needs to build rapport with the community, involve the community in problem solving (Crime Watch groups, Citizen’s Academies, etc.), and build a relationship that goes beyond the report, file, and investigation of an incident,” he said.
Informed by a tragic incident last year in which one of his deputies killed a man in his own home, Sheriff Holland spoke further on the importance of an educated public.
“I think that educating the community is a must especially when it comes to the laws governing an officer’s use of force. The law is very clear in that it authorizes an officer to use such force that is reasonably necessary to effect an arrest or protect themselves or a third party.”
Chief Deputy Haynes emphasized the importance of rapport with the local community as well.
“Sheriff (Greg) Christopher always said we have to know our communities before we have to know our communities, if that makes sense. And that’s what we strive to do, not because we’re statutorily bound to do that, but because it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “When somebody comes into contact with law enforcement, the reason for it is typically because that person is at their lowest, and we don’t want to add to that. We want to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem.”
He’s ultimately hopeful about the future of law enforcement in the country.
“I feel like it’s just another chapter of the narrative. It’s another way for us to continually examine ourselves, our training, our processes,” he said. “If we are going to be examined and scrutinized, it’s only gonna do one thing and that’s gonna be to make us better.”