In an ever-changing world and a time where police officers are often viewed as villains, a class at Carroll County High School offers students the chance to see how the other half lives.
In Greg Bolen’s Criminal Justice class, students are learning how to perform a safe and effective traffic stop. These stops are unknown in nature to the police officer when he/she initiates the stop based upon whatever reasonable suspicion or probable cause he has. The police officer may be stopping the vehicle for a simple traffic offense, only to find a dangerous situation waiting on him as he approaches the stopped vehicle. As an example, the person driving the car may have already committed a criminal act that the police officer doesn’t know about.
The driver then might think that the police officer knows what he has done and may produce a weapon and try to harm the officer for fear of going to jail. These practical scenarios place the students in real-life situations that a police officer might face, but within a controlled, safe environment. The students don training belts, along with a training weapon, and face potential dangerous situations that police officers see daily. The students then must make a split-second decision to control the situation to ensure everyone’s safety.
The main lesson that the students take away from these scenarios is “Officer Safety” regardless of the traffic offense, or crime that has been committed. The students learn what precautions the officer will take to ensure that he/she will return home safe at the end of their shift. Bolen said this is an important lesson in the Criminal Justice class because the students receive the same training that a new police cadet trainee would get while attending the police academy. These stops are a fun and popular part of the criminal justice class because of the hands-on training aspect it offers.
“It has been really helpful to me, seeing what law enforcement is all about,” said student Dustin Dalton, who aspires to be a game warden. “You have to be really careful when you are doing stuff like this because you can really get hurt. It shows us scenarios we haven’t thought about.”
Dalton’s classmate Victoria Gandee said she wants to go into a career in forensics. She wants to work with crime scenes and is excited about an upcoming portion of the class dealing with lifting fingerprints. She said the class has reaffirmed her decision to enter into law enforcement. It’s not an uncommon result of the class, said Bolen, a past Chief of the Hillsville Police Department who has been teaching the class for nearly 10 years.
“I have had some of them tell me the good thing about taking this class, some of them might have an idea they might want to go into criminal justice and after they take the class it either sells it or it doesn’t for them. They say, ‘I don’t like the way I felt walking up to the car,’ or some say, ‘This is exactly what I want to do,’” Bolen said. “Either way, they are finding out early before they head down this career path if it is for them or not. I’ve had several students to go on and be police officers, a couple of dispatchers and six or seven that are correctional officers now that have come through my class. It is good because they will ask questions and we will do different things, even filling out applications and we do mock interviews, why should I hire you for this job? That gives them a good sense of what this is all about and some hands-on experience.”
Student Gavin Leftwich said he is not actively pursuing a career in law enforcement but it is a backup option. Regardless, he finds the class to be a very intriguing one.
“It’s probably the most educational class I have taken during all my time in school,” Leftwich said.
During the mock traffic stops, Bolen gave students various scenarios such as stopping a vehicle traveling 25 miles per hour over the speed limit. The students begin the traffic stop by touching the trunk for two reasons – to leave fingerprints in the event a shooting takes place, and two, to make sure the trunk is closed (drug runners often used to employ a “jack in the box,” a person waiting in the trunk with a firearm). A backup officer joins the primary officer, who checks for license and registration and explains the reason for the traffic stop.
Bolen serves as the dispatcher during the mock traffic stop, relaying information to the primary officer while the backup officer stays with the vehicle to oversee the occupants. At that point, the primary officer will determine whether to issue a ticket or a warning.
“And we go over that and kind of explain to them the difference, how a warning can go a long way,” Bolen said. “It’s just as good as a ticket and sometimes you don’t always have to take enforcement action.”
More dangerous situations are also covered in the class. A mock weapon will also be placed randomly in the car at times, so students always have to be alert and use their observation skills.
“I will preach to them and drill it in their heads – safety, safety, safety. That is the main point we get across. I told them I don’t care what law is being broken, your goal is to make it home that night after each shift,” Bolen said. “I said you might miss a little dope, that is okay, but you need to make it home. They just learn good, safe, proper traffic stop procedures. It is split-second decision making at times if they spot a weapon. After they get through with the stops, they like this because it is hands on. I can talk about it, powerpoint it and tell them, ‘Hey this is what it looks like, you have got a gun inside.’ But once they miss that gun the first time and the driver will pull it out and point it at them, then they are walking up to the car the next time on their next traffic stop and they are telling me, ‘I really feel that.’ Even though they know it is a safe, controlled environment, you are still paranoid. They get a sense of what it is like.”
Bolen teaches Criminal Justice I and II at the high school. He said the class has exploded in popularity with 31 students in each class. Mindful of that, the law enforcement veteran doesn’t try to paint law enforcement in any particular light.
“I tell them I am going to teach you the good, the bad and the ugly of police work. I tell them it is the Clint Eastwood philosophy. And we talk about the bad police officers who give us a bad look and do the stupid things that are reported on. We talk about the press on some of it, how the communication breakdown, how not talking to them sometimes can be an issue,” Bolen said. “I told them years ago it was coming. It is like a boiling pot, the public versus the police. I will show the bad examples. I tell them, I am not going to paint the police always positive. I am going to paint it as exactly what happens to what story. Just like us, police officers can’t stereotype a certain group of people because of one person. People shouldn’t stereotype cops on just one bad cop making one stupid decision. So we go into that and I tell them this is what you are going to be facing in this climate.”
Allen Worrell can be reached at (276) 779-4062 or on Twitter@AWorrellTCN