Despite COVID, reforms and tensions, recruits graduate from Columbus police training academy

About 24 hours after Columbus City Council voted to delay the next recruit class for police officers in June by diverting its funding elsewhere, the most diverse academy class in the city’s history graduated Friday. 

A total of 46 recruits with the 134th class graduated Friday morning from the James G. Jackson Columbus Police Academy. Thirty-nine of those recruits  will begin 15 weeks of intensive field training as part of their year-long probationary period as the newest Columbus police officers. Seven recruits will be serving in other law enforcement agencies across central Ohio.

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City Council President Shannon Hardin, who proposed the budget amendment adopted 5-2 Thursday that would delay the June academy class by diverting its $2.5 million funding elsewhere, addressed Friday’s graduating class. The ceremony was not open to the public and The Dispatch was told the ceremony could only be viewed virtually by families of the graduates and not to members of the media. 

The recruit class that graduated Friday began in July at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and amidst a summer of racial justice protests that saw unrest and violence Downtown. The class is also the most diverse to graduate from the academy in the city’s history with 41% of the class representing diversity.  

Cody Jones, 25, grew up on Clarendon Avenue on the Hilltop, and said the help he was given and the experiences he had as a child inspired him to want to give back to the city as a police officer.

Jones spoke of his experiences at Friday’s ceremony as the recruit class orator. 

“We can’t help where we’re born or what are experiences are,” Jones said. “I’ve lived here my whole life. I wanted to expose (my classmates) to my perspective. I wanted them to understand and maybe give them a few tips and tricks for how to get along with people.” 

Shawn Smith-Davis, 24, who grew up in the Easthaven neighborhood, said he also was inspired by his childhood experiences to give back.

“Growing up in not the best area, seeing the tragedy that can happen firsthand, I understand that feeling of wanting to be welcomed and accepted,” Smith-Davis said. “I want to be that ray of hope and sunshine and allow people a positive outlet and be there when we’re needed.” 

The unique circumstances the graduating class had to endure — including multiple class members being diagnosed with COVID — helped prepare the class for the changing world around them, both Jones and Smith-Davis said. 

“You have to control what you can control,” Jones said. “It helped us to learn how to change and not be stagnant or stuck in our ways.” 

Some of those changes and adaptations came from adjustments and additions to the academy’s training curriculum because of recommendations from the Community Safety Advisory Commission report released in January 2020. 

The commission suggested implementing additional diversity training and implicit bias instruction during the academy.

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Many of those recommendations were put in place for the recruits who graduated Friday, including an extended probationary period to last one year after their academy graduation. 

The recruits who graduated Friday also participated in community panels for conversations about “how some groups interact with police and the challenges of policing a diverse community.” 

Recruits will also be asked during their probationary period to work closely with community members in the area of the city they are assigned to work to identify a problem and create and implement a solution for the problem as part of a community engagement project. 

Deputy Chief Jennifer Knight said the recruits will present their projects to community members at meetings and to each other to help become problem solvers and make a difference from the earliest days of their careers. 

“I am continually impressed by this group,” Knight said. “They’ve been here as we evolve as a police department and they are very positive, very excited and a really good group of people. Their belief in the direction we’re going is incredible.” 

On Thursday, Hardin said he knew his proposal to delay the class slated to start in June wouldn’t be universally accepted. 

“I know this decision will not sit well with many amidst a spike in crime,” but just adding more officers won’t solve the crime problem, Hardin said. “It is not our responsibility to do what’s popular.”

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Knight said Thursday that the June class, as well as a class currently ongoing and scheduled to graduate this summer, are needed to replace officers who are retiring. Without the new academy classes, the city will not be able to maintain its current level of staffing. 

On Friday, Knight said the class could start on a slight delay, but the academy doesn’t have the option to double the class size in December, when another class is scheduled to start, because of requirements for staff-to-student ratio, amongst other concerns. 

“We’re going to lose quality personnel and diversity to other agencies,” she said. 

Knight said the recruit class scheduled to start in June is being chosen from an applicant pool that was 49% diverse, which would make it the most diverse in the city’s history. 

The Columbus police recruits graduating Friday will begin 15 weeks of intensive field training with experienced officers throughout the city, followed by an additional 37 weeks of probation where they will continue to be evaluated.

bbruner@dispatch.com

@bethany_bruner

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