New conservation officers put to the test with 18-week field training

New conservation officer Keophalychanh, right, and one of his field training officers, CO Jeff Ginn.

Sept. 12, 2014

Standing high on a bluff overlooking the Muskegon River in late August, Michigan Department of Natural Resources conservation officers Jeff Ginn and Saykham Keophalychanh spotted an angler on the river below. Without saying a word, Keophalychanh immediately began making his way down the path to the river bank, hoping to make contact with the angler.

One of 23 graduates from the Department of Natural Resources' most recent law enforcement academy, Keophalychanh is currently working under the supervision of Ginn, his field training officer (FTO). Like his classmates, Keophalychanh will spend 18 weeks afield with veteran conservation officers to learn the ropes before reporting to his assigned county.

"I want him to have a lot of contacts during the field training," said Ginn, a CO in Newaygo County. "The more people he talks to that aren't suspicious, the more someone who is suspicious will stand out to him."

New conservation officer Saykham Keophalychanh working a patrol on Hardy Pond near White Cloud.Keophalychanh, who is halfway through his second of three six-week sessions with an FTO, said he's already learned 10 times as much about the job as he did at the academy.

"It's kind of like doing lab work in a science class, to use an analogy," Keophalychanh said. "Sometimes five minutes in the lab can teach you as much as five hours with a book. What we learned in the academy is 20 miles wide, but only an inch deep. The FTO process fine-tunes you, reinforces what you learned in the academy."

Ginn, an eight-year veteran of the DNR's Law Enforcement Division, said his job as a FTO is to make sure Keophalychanh understands what's expected of him and to teach by example.

"The academy provides a great foundation for our officers," he said, "but when they get in the field, that's when they put their skills to the test."

Keophalychanh said Ginn has really helped him learn what he should focus on in the field.

New officer Keophalychanh works a patrol on Hardy Pond with his field training officer Jeff Ginn."I was a clean slate coming in," Keophalychanh said. "It's good to have direction. Just being able to see how it's done is a good experience for me."

Getting these 23 new officers through the training is crucial to the DNR's mission to protect, manage and conserve Michigan's natural resources. Prior to the academy this year, the DNR's Law Enforcement Division was operating at an all-time low for the number of conservation officers in the field, with some counties not having the full-time presence of a CO.

The field training portion of a new officer's overall training is an integral part of what prepares the officer for the job, said Sgt. Jay Person, commander of the DNR's conservation officer recruit school.

"The field training is segmented so that the new officer moves from an observational role to an active role over the course of 18 weeks," Person said. "When completed, the new officer has a very good idea what the job is really like, and pairing them with different FTOs throughout the field training maximizes their exposure to highly trained, experienced conservation officers who have a lot of knowledge to share about the job and the area where the new officer is assigned."

Officers Saykham Keophalychanh and Angie Greenway provide first aid to an injured swimmer. During the first six weeks of field training, the new officers were paired with a more experienced officer in or near their assigned county. In the second six-week segment, the new officers were moved to another region of Michigan, sometimes to an area completely different than their assigned county, allowing the new officers to be exposed to different areas of the state and the different activities encountered - an officer assigned to a more rural county may spend the next six weeks in a more urban area and vice versa.

In between the first and second sessions, there was a one-week training session at the DNR's Ralph A. MacMullan Conference Center at Higgins Lake that focused on marine operations, boat handling and tribal awareness.

After the second six-week segment, another one-week training period focusing on waterfowl training and enforcement will be held just prior to the opening of most waterfowl hunting seasons in Michigan.

In the first six weeks, the new officers spend more time observing the more experienced officer handling contacts or assignments. In the second week, the new officers take the lead more on contacts. In the final segment, the new officers fully take the lead on contacts and investigations.

"The field training gradually ramps up as it moves along," said Person. "At the end, the new officers will be completely ready to perform their duties as assigned."

Keophalychanh's view of the field training experience is echoed by his classmates.

"It's an awesome way to learn," said Tim Rosochacki, a 26-year-old former DNR park ranger who is a newly minted CO. "They've got a lot of tips and tricks that they've learned and they know what a fresh officer is going through.

"My training officers have been great - they've let me learn on my own, but they've also added to it. They'll tell you their own experiences and that gives you a better mental picture of the routes or avenues you can take. Now you're getting to put all the stuff you learned in the academy to use. You're getting to see firsthand how it all fits together.

"They get you thinking one way and then you get out in the field and you begin to see why you were trained that way."

As Ginn and Keophalychanh continue their patrol, they cruise past a launch ramp on Hardy Pond and spot another angler fishing in a boat not far from shore. Keophalychanh asks Ginn if they should wave him in to check him. Ginn's response?

"Let's talk about that a minute," Ginn said. "Let's say we see him catching fish hand-over-fist and then when you contact him, he just motors off. What are we going to do? What options are available to us?"

Keophalychanh said the first thing he would do is look for the boat's registration numbers. He puts his field glasses to his eyes, notes the vessel's MC numbers, and gets on the radio. Minutes later, he learns the boat is registered to someone who has a senior citizens' fishing license. That seems to jibe with what Keophalychanh has seen.

As Ginn put it, the pair found out what they needed to know without disrupting the angler's recreation.

"There are countless ways to do this job," Ginn said. "It doesn't matter which approach you take if you get the right outcome. After we have an interaction, we often talk about how we might have done it differently. I like to tell him about things I think I've done wrong. There are times when I say, 'I should have done it this way …'"

Richard Cardenas, a 26-year-old recent academy graduate from Ionia County said working with an established CO has really helped him understand how to interact with the public.

"You're working with a fellow officer who helps you get in your groove and develop your own style," Cardenas said. "Each community is different and the academy can't teach you that - how to interact with different cultures, different age groups, different types of sportsmen. The scenarios they give you at the academy are just that - scenarios. This is real life."

Cardenas, who spent his first six-week session with an officer in Livingston County, said he spent a lot of time at Belle Isle, a far different atmosphere than rural Ionia County. He's found a supportive community in Detroit.

"Most of the people we encounter are very happy we're there," he said. "They support what we're doing and are enjoying the new atmosphere at Belle Isle."

The new COs will begin their third six-week session of field training shortly. Then they'll be hitting the ground on their own just when things really get busy for conservation officers - right before the firearms deer season. By all accounts, the officers can hardly wait.

"The job is what I thought it would be and then some," Rosochacki said. "Every day I'm amazed at what I get to do and what I experience. You're on the lake one day and the next day you're out in the woods. The dynamics of the job and the variety are awesome."

Ginn said his stint as an FTO has been a learning experience for him, too.

"I've learned things from Keo," he said. "We're both in the same boat. I've been in his shoes and I'm falling back on my experiences to learn what kind of an FTO I want to be. This is a new chapter in my career, too."

For his part, Keophalychanh is looking forward to getting out on his own.

"It's a point of pride to earn your badge and begin putting everything you've learned into action," he said. "It's exciting to know that day is just around the corner."

To learn more about the DNR's conservation officer academy and the recruitment process, visit www.michigan.gov/conservationofficers.