The Associated Press
SPENCER, Okla. — Ken Pittman expected the Oklahoma Highway Patrol Academy to be a tough experience. After 16 weeks of training, Pittman said he now understands why it's tough – troopers have to know how to protect themselves and stay alive while protecting others from harm.
"We knew we'd make it, but we knew it was going to be a hard four months," Pittman said Friday after he and 48 classmates from the 57th OHP Academy donned the patrol's brown shirt and brass badge at graduation and commissioning ceremonies.
"It was tough, but it was tough for a reason."
The new troopers -- 48 men and one woman -- joined the statewide law enforcement force as the agency works to lift its numbers to the authorized level of 895 troopers. Oklahoma had 795 troopers before Friday's graduation.
A total of 68 cadets started the 112-day academy but 19 dropped out. Commissioner of Public Safety Kevin Ward said many who dropped out found the academy too physically challenging or did not realize the dangers troopers face as they patrol the state's roads and highways.
A total of 645 people applied for the academy, officials said. Another 510 people have applied for the 58th OHP Academy the begins on Feb. 29.
Ward said he is happy with the quality and dedication of the new troopers, many of whom have military backgrounds.
"We try to pick those individuals who are mature, who can think on their own," Ward said. The training that cadets receive at the academy, including academic and driving classes, self-defense education and three weeks of firearms training, helps prepare them for the hazards they will encounter on the state's roads and highways, Ward said.
Advances in technology have significantly improved the level of training that OHP cadets receive, he said. Unlike when he was a cadet 22 years ago, Ward said sophisticated computer graphics and imagery give cadets virtual life-and-death experiences in shoot-don't shoot scenarios.
Each of the new troopers will complete a one-year probationary period that began the first day of the academy. Their starting salaries will be $35,514 a year. Top-scale for a state trooper is $57,028.
Lt. Gov. Jari Askins said state troopers carry a lot of responsibility, even when they're off duty. Residents of many Oklahoma communities know troopers as neighbors and friends and seek them out when they have a problem, even when the troopers are not in uniform.
"They have great expectations of you. They're going to hold you to a higher standard," Askins said.
Askins also said troopers are ambassadors for the state and will be judged by how they conduct themselves while writing traffic tickets or offering roadside assistance.
"It really just boils down to your attitude and your actions," she said. "You can't teach character. You can't teach integrity. You either have it or you don't."
A spokesman for the graduating class, Trooper Tony Lemay, credited family members for helping graduates work through the emotional and psychological challenges they faced during the rigors of academy training.
"Please continue to be our rock and help us to learn how to be troopers," Lemay said.
Lemay dedicated the academy to the memory of two troopers who died last year from injuries sustained in the line of duty.
Trooper Steven R. Smith died in February 2006 from injuries he sustained when he was shot during a 1999 standoff with a man at a cemetery near Grove. Smith's injuries left him a quadriplegic and forced him to retire in 2000.
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Trooper William Lloyd "Bill" McClendon was killed in October when his cruiser collided with a tractor-trailer rig on Interstate 44 about six miles northeast of Claremore.