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Criticism of police nationally doesn't faze Fargo recruits

FARGO, N.D. -- Nearly a year ago, Eric Garner died in the chokehold of a New York City police officer who was trying to arrest him. His death preceded a string of high-profile, officer-involved killings -- Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Tamir Ri...

Tammy Ehresman receives a blast of pepper spray during training Wednesday, July 8, 2015, at the Fargo Regional Law Enforcement Training Center in north Fargo. (David Samson / Forum News Service)

FARGO, N.D. -- Nearly a year ago, Eric Garner died in the chokehold of a New York City police officer who was trying to arrest him. His death preceded a string of high-profile, officer-involved killings -- Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio, Walter Scott in Charleston, S.C., Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Md. -- each case adding to the intense public criticism of police conduct nationwide.

And yet despite this climate of scrutiny, despite the chance that video of a police encounter could go viral, despite the ever-present dangers and heavy responsibilities of police work, there are still people who want to be cops.

About 30 of them are attending Fargo's police academy this summer. They've been undeterred by the wave of protests against police violence, and for some, it's been a motivation.

"In light of everything that's been going on in national media, I think we need to have positive role models in law enforcement," said Tammy Ehresman, a 39-year-old mother of two who's looking to leave a desk job to pursue her dream of becoming an officer.

Ehresman and other students said building bridges between officers and the public, a strategy known as community-oriented policing, is key to improving the image of the police.


"It might help prevent the next Ferguson or the next Baltimore by making police more available to talk to people ... and show the community that police are humans," said 24-year-old Brad Cernik, who received a criminal justice degree from North Dakota State University.

Alex Rings, a 21-year-old academy student from Williston, said she was inspired to seek a law enforcement career after getting to know an officer as part of a high school class on law and justice.

"Cops just aren't out there pulling people over and arresting bad guys all the time," she said. "They're still cool, intelligent, relatable people."

Several students who grew up in Fargo said they're driven to become officers so they can serve their hometown, which, along with population growth, has seen increases in its violent crime rate.

Alex Bollman, a 29-year-old student, said he was raised in a safe, quiet neighborhood in Fargo. "I want to be able to bring that to my kids," said Bollman, a father of three who served in Iraq as an Army infantryman.

Josh Heller, 26, of Fargo said he thought about working as a paramedic or firefighter, but he was drawn to the job of an officer, in part, because of the challenge of responding to nonstop police calls.

"You're constantly busy," Heller said. "You're not sitting around, especially in Fargo."

'End of the night'


On Wednesday morning, the academy students lined up outside the law enforcement training center near the Fargo airport, waiting for their turn to be sprayed in the eyes with pepper spray.

As the burning sensation took hold, each student had to punch and kick a standing bag relentlessly, or as one instructor said, "like your life depends on it." Right afterward, the student made a simulated arrest of a knife-wielding man, telling him loudly and clearly to "Drop the knife!" while pointing a mock gun at him.

Ehresman, her eyes still red from the pepper spray, described the drill as a mind game. "Panic can really set in if you're not careful," she said. "My mind needed to tell my body: Keep breathing."

Ehresman said the possibility of being hurt on the job or having to inflict deadly force has not dampened her desire to be an officer.

"Not that I'd ever want to be in that situation where I'd have to use force, but that person's putting me in that position to have to do that, and if I have to make that choice, I will," she said. "My mindset's going to be, I need to come home at the end of the night."

In an age of smartphones and surveillance cameras, including those on squad car dashboards, instructors frequently remind the students that, as officers, they should assume they're being recorded.

"We talk about it every day," Bollman said. "When you're on a call, you're on camera."

Knowing this, students are taught to consider how their actions could be negatively perceived by the public, Bollman said.


"The camera can be your friend, too. It's not always a bad thing," he said. Police body cameras "have exonerated tons of people because they show the entire interaction from the officer's perspective."

'Openings all over'

Tracy Phillips, who manages DiscoverPolicing.org, an officer recruiting website created by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, said it's hard to tell how the recent scrutiny of police conduct is affecting the number of recruits around the country.

Phillips said big-city police departments generally have an easier time recruiting applicants because they have a larger population pool to draw from, while rural departments have a tougher time. "Few folks are going to travel across the country to set up shop as a police officer in a small town," she said.

At some local law enforcement agencies, the numbers of applications for officer openings have dwindled in the past few years, Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney said. Relatively low wages for officers and the region's shortage of workers have made finding applicants difficult, police officials said.

"Before, they used to just come to us and knock the door down. Now, we have to go out and find them," Laney said.

However, attracting students to the police academies in Fargo, Bismarck, Devils Lake, Grand Forks and Minot, which are run by Lake Region State College, has not been a problem, said John Maritato, the college's director of peace officer training.

Maritato said the academies churn out a total of about 100 students per year, including a handful who decide law enforcement isn't for them. For graduates who want to work as officers, landing a job in North Dakota hasn't been difficult.


"There's openings all over," he said. "With the oil boom out West, you know, they've been adding positions constantly just because of the growth of their cities."

Maritato said the Fargo academy, which starts in May, usually fills up by January or February, and after that, prospective students are put on a waiting list.

FPD recruiting

In contrast to a year ago, the number of job vacancies for officers at the Fargo Police Department is down, said David Todd, the city's interim chief.

Todd said he recently had five vacancies but that number dropped to two after he made conditional offers to three academy students. Under the conditional offer, an officer candidate has to graduate at or near the top of the class and pass a battery of tests. A rookie officer earns an annual salary of $50,000, he said.

In November, Fargo Police Chief Keith Ternes resigned after officers complained that his management style had led to low morale. It was during Ternes' tenure that Fargo police officials heard from academy students who had a negative perception of the department, Todd said.

To help change that perception, the department has been exposing the students to Fargo officers and detectives during their training.

"If those officers and those detectives are satisfied with their jobs and happy with what they're doing, it reflects through them to the students," said Todd, who believes the tactic is working. "We're starting to see the candidates that we were hoping for."

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