Training the next generation of conservation officers

Cpl. Brad Dohm watches as DNR conservation officer recruits arrive at the training center

Jan. 16, 2014

On Sunday, Jan. 12, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) opened its first new conservation officer (CO) recruit school since 2007. A total of 31 CO candidates -- boasting an array of backgrounds and life experiences -- are attending the school.

Candidates range from a college senior to recruits who are in their early 40s and include nine law enforcement employees from other agencies, including the state police, sheriff's departments, and small-town and urban police forces. Others have degrees in criminal justice. Six are military veterans; two have been conservation officers in other states -- Kansas and Wisconsin; and two are employees with the DNR Parks and Recreation Division

Still others are from entirely different disciplines, among them a food-processing employee of the Department of Corrections and a pizza restaurant manager -- though both have extensive hunting, fishing and outdoor experience.

"Out of more than 1,000 applications, Civil Service forwarded 170 applications to us," said the DNR's Lt. Creig Grey, who oversaw the recruitment process. "After initial interviews and background checks, we brought 38 in for second interviews and narrowed it down to 31 candidates who made the cut. I'd say we have excellent candidates who showed they could meet deadlines and pay attention to detail. This is a good start for us."

Derek Miller (right) and Patrick McManus (center background) are just two of the DNR's CO trainers.The successful candidates will spend the next 22 weeks attending the DNR Law Enforcement Academy, being held at the Michigan State Police training facility Sunday evenings through Friday afternoons. After that, they'll undergo another 18 weeks of field training.

"They'll hit the field and be ready to work on their own this fall," Grey said.

Candidates who successfully complete the training will join the Law Enforcement Division's 172 current conservation officers.

"We have a lot of vacancies across the state and we have fewer conservation officers in many areas than the resources require; this recruit school will help fill some of those vacancies," said DNR Law Enforcement Division Chief Gary Hagler

"We also have in excess of 50 retirements coming in the next five years," Hagler added. "We need to get officers trained and in the field before that experience is lost."

The 31 candidates have already passed agility tests and will begin rigorous training in all law enforcement disciplines, as well as specific natural resources training. They'll learn it all: defensive tactics, high-speed and defensive driving, first aid, traffic control and criminal law -- everything they need to be fully empowered peace officers and game wardens.

Recruits will also undergo more than 100 hours of firearms training and learn how to rescue someone from a submerged vehicle in the academy's pool.

"If they don't know how to swim, they'll learn," said Sgt. Jay Person, the DNR's recruit school commander.

The training process is similar to a military boot camp. Reveille is at 5 a.m., then an hour of physical fitness training at 6, followed by daily inspections, classroom work and drills. The day ends at 5 p.m., but candidates will spend much of their evening hours studying and conducting work details -- everything from policing the facilities to cleaning the latrines. "Lights out" is at 10 p.m.

Over the course of training, some 30 to 40 conservation officers will participate as training instructors, as well as the state police training staff.

"The academics are tough," said Person. "There are a lot of requirements and they must pass them all."

Candidates live in a dorm-like setting, two to a room, throughout their training. They'll have some free time in the evenings, though there are no televisions or radios at the facility. They are free to go out -- they'll have to sign out and back in if they leave the academy -- though most recruits will spend their time studying, Person said.

"They have to learn to pay attention to details," he said. "When you miss details, that's when bad things happen. It's a stressful environment and they have to be able to handle stress."

The goal is to produce highly trained officers whom their fellow COs -- and the public -- know they can count on.

"We give them the best training, the best tools, and the best equipment, everything they need to succeed," Hagler said. "But they have to step up to the plate to be successful."

Money for this year's training academy was recommended by the governor and appropriated by the Legislature.

"It is not a cheap endeavor," Hagler said. "This is a long-term investment we're making on behalf of Michigan's residents, visitors, sportsmen and everyone who wants to safely and responsibly enjoy our great outdoors."

Meanwhile, the DNR is still looking for a few good men and women.

"Men and women interested in a career as a conservation officer and who want to be eligible for the next class should get to work now taking the Michigan Civil Service exam and completing the online job application," Grey said. "To be eligible for the next academy, candidates should have their exam and application completed as soon as possible."

Two areas of the state -- the northern Lower Peninsula and the eastern Upper Peninsula -- did not produce many candidates for the current class, but the DNR hopes to attract more from those regions in the future.

For more information about the day-to-day work of Michigan conservation officers, visit the DNR website at www.michigan.gov/conservationofficers.