by Megan Merrigan
More than 100 police recruits from across the area started their first day of training at the Bergen County Law and Public Safety Institute in Mahwah Friday morning, one of the largest classes in the state, officials said.
Basic disciplinary drills and few athletic exercises were included at Friday’s academy orientation, which launched the 22-week training program required to become a sworn police officer.
“As other academies were closing, (Bergen County’s) actually started to grow,” said Bergen County Police Chief Brian Higgins. The county’s program has seen an enrollment increase of 30 percent since 2011.
The latest academy class includes 102 recruits in all, with 36 from Bergen County police departments and five paying their own tuition and fees through training in what’s called the Alternate Route program.
In addition to a higher rate of police retirements in recent years, Higgins chalked the academy’s growth up to changes he and his staff have made to the program, including administrative and technological upgrades.
The academy’s classrooms now come equipped with televisions and smartboards. But, high-tech equipment is not the only change to grace the program’s classrooms. The educational material being taught has advanced as well, he said.
The academy now places more emphasis on responding to citizens with special needs, according to Higgins.
“It’s always this goal of law enforcement to see a need, respond to it and say, ‘how do we fix it?’ Higgins said. “Guns, and night sticks, and pepper spray and tasers are not always the answer.”
Some of the special needs focused classes include responding to people with Alzheimer’s, and other courses that address how officers can respond to special needs populations.
“For instance, lights, sirens, the typical police response for the average person can make a situation for someone with special needs much worse,” Higgins said.
Higgins also believes the academy’s “all inclusiveness” plays a role in attracting such a large number of recruits.
The Bergen County Police Academy life safety complex houses a mock bank, which allows for simulated robberies that recruits respond to for practice.
“We need them to fail here first,” Higgins said.
This recruiting class is comprised of nine women and 30 percent are military veterans.
“When recruits graduate from here, you can tell,” Higgins said of the program.