By Danielle Braff, Pioneer Press Online (Chicago, Illinois)
The burglar messed up.
On a recent day in Mount Prospect, officers were combing through a home that had been burglarized when they noticed a vinyl chair had been touched and moved. The officers quickly cut a piece off the chair and put it into an airtight glass tank. They then heated a Superglue-like substance inside the tank which created smoke. The smoke adhered to a previously invisible fingerprint, making it visible.
In the past, police would not have known they could get fingerprints off of a slick vinyl material, said Robert Rzepecki, Mount Prospect police commander. Rzepecki discovered the crucial information during his 11-week stay at the Federal Bureau of Investigation's National Academy, a picturesque spot covering 385 wooded acres in Virginia where detectives refuse to be deterred by a swap of vinyl material or just about anything else.
Rzepecki is Mount Prospect's most recent of three men from the department who traveled to the FBI headquarters to expand their knowledge of police work.
The academy is arranged like a typical school day, with classes scheduled from 8 a.m. until noon and again from 1 to 5 p.m. Rzepecki chose courses he believed would apply to his district, and for the 11 weeks in the academy, he received intense training through professional coaching and networking experiences.
Rzepecki focused on forensic science while he was in Virginia and discovered fresh ways to examine burglaries and homicides.
"It's the most unique training experience," he said. "The training is all conducted by expert law enforcement agents, and the networking and the opportunity to learn from other people is not like anything you could obtain in any other training for law enforcement."
Rzepecki now has a long list of contacts throughout Illinois, the nation and the world, made up of 37,488 graduates of the program - 1,592 who are from Illinois departments. When Rzepecki needs help on a specific case in Mount Prospect, he picks up the telephone and is instantly connected to another highly trained police force, where he gets advice on his situation.
The program was created in 1935 in an effort by the FBI to give back to local and state departments. Tuition, room and board are covered by the academy, so the only expense local departments procure is the cost of covering for the missing commander during the 11 weeks.
Every year, about 1,000 officers, dressed in green polo shirts and tan pants, attend a session, taking courses ranging from police stress to leadership.
Mount Prospect Deputy Chief of Police Operations John Dahlberg, sent in his application to study at the academy in April but he is still waiting to hear back details of when he will get to attend. Screening for the program can take anywhere from six months to eight years while the FBI uses all its powers to do background searches and interviews to make sure candidates are applying for the right reasons.
"The waiting list is so long to get in," said Mount Prospect Police Chief Richard Eddington, who attended the program in 1986. Only those who promise to use the skills they learn for at least three years after they graduate will be allowed to apply, Dahlberg said. Also, the program is geared toward police in management positions, so officers are not given an opportunity to attend. One out of every five academy graduates hold the position of executive head of their agency.
FBI National Academy Spokesman Kurt Crawford said the bureau attempts to be fair to all national and international departments by only accepting a certain number from each area every year, but some major police departments will only hire chiefs if they've been through the training.
"Less than 2 percent of all police officers will ever get a chance to apply," Dahlberg said. "It's a prestigious and competitive environment."