Only the best

It takes far more than brawny arms and a square jaw to be a boating and natural resources officerMaybe 50 years ago, those who entered natural resources law enforcement needed only a strong back and arm muscles, fishing and hunting savvy, some skill with a boat, and to be handy with firearms.That was then -- at least in myth -- and this is now. Worlds apart in time, philosophy, learning requirements and professional expectations, today's legion of "game and fish cops" are selected through such a painstaking process that only the best make the cut. While physical fitness is still required, the most important "muscle" one utilizes these days in the outdoors is found between the ears.Whether patrolling the Gulf Coast, Pacific Northwest, Great Lakes, Midwest or in the east, today's officers are the result of intensive screening and even more intensive training. Michigan Department of Natural Resources officers, for example, go through a rigorous hiring process, according to Training Sgt. Jane Dunn, one of four people involved in the DNR's training program, which is headed by Lt. Tim Nixon. They are joined by Sgt. Lynn Ward and analyst Michelle Cadar-ette.Applicants must be Michigan residents, and their first step is to send in an application. They take a test from which the highest scores are selected.Those individuals are then sent an "interest letter," which actually begins the hiring process. During the last hiring cycle, 750 letters were mailed, Dunn recalled. This letter advises applicants they need to do certain things to continue in the process, including pass an agility test and background evaluation, physical exam and two or three oral interviews. They must also become a certified peace officer, but that's a bit later in the process.Agility tests measure physical fitness, and include running, push ups, a test of grip strength, maneuvering an obstacle course and carrying and dragging deadweight dummies. Typical of any law enforcement agency, Dunn said Michigan's background investigation is "fairly intensive," and it looks into an applicant's personal background, work history, education and finances.Narrowing the field What started as a crowded field soon begins to narrow. Of the 750 original applicants offered a chance to apply, 207 returned letters in the recent hiring sequence, Sgt. Dunn said. Of those, 114 were actually scheduled for interviews and 70 went through the interview process. That group was pared down to 30 applicants who were re-interviewed.While not nearly as awesome a challenge, hiring in other states follows similar patterns.During a recent hiring sequence in Illinois, 250 applicants were considered.That was pared down to 50, and finally 30 went to the academy, where four "washed out" during the training process.In Iowa, noted Boating Law Administrator Randy Edwards, applicants take an aptitude test, answer a questionnaire and submit a resume. "And we select who we feel are the best people to interview," Edwards stated."Once we select those people, we start doing background checks. For one opening, we might interview ten or fifteen people, and we nail that down to five finalists. Those people go out to the Law Enforcement Academy."While states may vary in their educational requirements, Edwards noted that Iowa, which does not have a college degree requirement, has not interviewed anyone without a degree in the last 25 years. So advanced education definitely helps.Successful applicants are sent to the academy, the duration of which varies from state to state. Training covers all the bases, both mental and physical. They learn defensive driving, shooting skills, arrest and interview procedures, and much more. They learn boating skills and swimming, too; important for officers whose jobs will frequently find them on, and sometimes in, the water. But graduation from the academy does not mean these new officers are "turned loose." In Illinois, for example, new officers are on probation for a full year, same as in Michigan. They spend several weeks with one or more field training officers. Their performance is evaluated throughout the process, noted Illinois DNR Enforcement Chief Tom Wakolbinger."They spend four months with the FTO," Wakolbinger detailed. "First they observe, then gradually work into hands-on, and at the end, they do most of the hands-on, with some observation. It is very structured."In Michigan, said Dunn, each new officer spends six weeks with an FTO, then switches to another training officer, and finally goes back in the field with the first trainer. After completing all of that, they are assigned to a "home area" or patrol district, and they go there to live and work, where their performance is then evaluated by a sergeant. They work with a supervisor at least once a week.Ultimately, this lengthy training and evaluation process produces good, seasoned personnel who are self-starters, Dunn explained. "We work by ourselves 80 percent of the time," she said. "We have to be confident in what we're doing. There are no two situations in an officer's career that are exactly alike." # # #This story originally appeared in the June/July 2000 issue of "Small Craft Advisory."

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