Recruits well prepared
In her first hour on the job with the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary (RNC) detachment in Corner Brook, Constable Shawna Park dealt with a bomb threat at a local school. She’s attended a few more of those since – but that’s just the job, she says with a laugh.
“Every day is unlike every other day, and sometimes you go on a call, and it’s the opposite of what you expected.” The unpredictability can be unnerving, but Ms. Park says she feels well-prepared for whatever comes her way during a 12-hour shift.
The York Harbour resident was among the first graduates from the Police Studies Diploma Program, a joint venture between Memorial University and the RNC that allows police officers to be fully trained in the province for the first time. It’s the only such arrangement in Canada between a university and a police force.
Previously, those interested in policing with the RNC had to go to Holland College in Prince Edward Island to train, and then hope the RNC might hire them. But as RNC Chief Joe Browne explains, that was not always likely. Austerity measures begun in the late ’80s froze RNC recruiting. Within a decade, the force had dropped by 80 members – about 20 per cent of its ranks. Then a few years ago, a new provincial focus on public safety and funding to recruit opened the door to an at-home training solution.
“We had a marvellous educational institution right here. It made sense to partner around the creation of a training program,” Chief Browne notes, adding Memorial’s Faculty of Arts already offered almost all the necessary courses. Only a course in forensic interviewing had to be specifically designed.
In the past, he says, training was a closed system. “Police recruits were being taught by former police officers, allowing for no outside influence.”
Integrating police recruits with other university students is important. “It gives people a deeper understanding about the RNC, and the knowledge our members have.” That openness, he believes, will help build public support and confidence.
The multi-disciplinary curriculum offers recruits a broad understanding of what they will encounter on the job. “The program is really geared to the the social aspects of policing, and that’s of benefit to the whole community,” explains Prof. Anne Morris, sociology professor and coordinator of the program. “Before they even start, these young officers have an idea of the root causes of crime and why people get in trouble with the law. It shows the level of commitment of the RNC to having the best-educated candidates.”
Recruits in the program take five courses in each of the fall and winter semesters, an education that Ms. Park has found invaluable. “I went on one call where the person was mentally ill. We had done an abnormal psychology course, so I had an idea of how to deal with the situation.” She notes other courses in psychology, the impact of drugs on behaviour, juvenile delinquency and aspects of the justice system have all served her well.
“They hit the ground running, with knowledge that our longer-serving members had to learn on the job,” Chief Browne says.
He goes on to explain that the changing face of crime necessitates new learning.
"Twenty-five years ago, we weren’t looking at fraud and extortion over the Internet, for example. Crime has evolved, and our training has had to evolve with it,” he says. “The underpinning of the whole program is to develop critical thinkers, and in my view there’s no better place to do that than in a university environment.”
And, Prof. Morris adds, Memorial benefits, too. “It does a lot for the university, to have varied programs which provide a strong connection to the community. We have a group of students who are guarenteed a job upon successful completion of the Police Studies program. They can begin their career and be contributing members of society right away. That’s a wonderful thing for the university to be able to offer.”
In addition to their full courseload, recruits undergo rigorous physical training. Early morning runs are supplemented with workouts and swimming lessons at the Aquarena, “to get to a level where we could do water rescue,” Ms. Park explains. At RNC headquarters, they also learn use of force and self-defense tactics, and train with equipment such as handcuffs and firearms.
Add to that load a requirement to take on community service projects: “It’s important that police officers be part of the community,” Ms. Park said and Chief Browne echoed.
“It's a very intense program,” admits Ms. Park, who adds that one advantage to the program is the necessity of honing time management skills, making the transition to work easier. “There’s a lot to do in the job – and every time you go on a call, there’s so much paperwork.”
Ms. Park, who received her bachelor of arts from Memorial in 1999, spent five years working for the province before deciding to return to school at the age of 28. She’d been accepted to the Faculty of Law at Dalhousie when she heard about the diploma in police studies.
Recruits in the program range in age from 19 to 39, with the mid-20s being average.
Despite the program’s intensity, most recruits excel. A remarkable 20 percent of the first class landed on the Dean’s List, Chief Browne says.
The fifth group of cadets will be sworn in in Fall 2009, as a sixth group of recruits hit the classroom. Feedback from those who have completed the diploma and begun serving as RNC officers has helped to fine tune it.