Job's dangers don't deter cadets at Westmoreland Municipal Police Officers' Training Academy
As they were preparing to graduate, the 2017 cadets of the Westmoreland Municipal Police Officers' Training Academy had a grim reminder of the dangers of the profession they were choosing.
New Kensington police Officer Brian Shaw was gunned down while trying to arrest a suspect just four days before the 32 police academy cadets graduated.
“That was disturbing for all of us,” said Tabatha Wolfe, a recent graduate. “It makes you wonder, but I don't think anybody signed up to do this not knowing that this was a possibility.”
Wolfe, 32, of Fayette City, said the incident convinced her even more that she had made the right decision.
“You feel for the officer, you feel for their family, but it actually made me want to do it more,” she said.
Wolfe, who has worked as a paramedic and volunteer firefighter in Fayette County, is still looking for a job with a local police department — or two. Her hope is to become a K-9 officer specializing in drug detection.
“I like the idea of getting drugs off of our streets. That's kind of big for me,” she said.
For cadets just getting into law enforcement, hours can be long, work conditions difficult, prospects uncertain and the public scrutiny demoralizing.
But that isn't enough to dissuade them from pursuing what is more a calling than a job, several said.
“If you don't like what you're doing, you can't do it,” Wolfe said.
Despite the dangers, the Westmoreland police academy, one of 22 in the state, continues to attract new cadets and see its graduates get jobs with agencies in Western Pennsylvania and elsewhere, said Director Frank Newill.
“There are a lot of employment opportunities out there. They may not be where your preference is, but they're out there,” Newill said.
The Youngwood academy graduated nine part-time cadets in 2016 and 15 in 2017. The new academic year started Jan. 13 with eight part-time cadets. Full-time students normally join them in June.
Newill, a former Greensburg police sergeant, said most cadets understand that danger comes with the territory. Their training is a way to prepare for and mitigate the occupational hazards.
“To most people who want to be a police officer, that has a greater impact on the family than the officer. This field is not one that you're indecisive about (choosing). You have to have some type of driving influence to do this,” he said.
The academy, founded in 1979 as part of Westmoreland County Community College, lost two graduates to traffic accidents in 2014 and 2015.
Although Brian Shaw did not attend the Westmoreland academy — he graduated from the Allegheny County Police Training Academy in 2014 — an officer shooting anywhere is a reminder of the inherent risks in policing, Newill said.
Returning home after a hard day's work is not guaranteed.
“When you have an officer murdered, it changes your perspective,” Newill said.
Prior to joining New Kensington in June 2017, Shaw, 25, of Lower Burrell worked for departments in East Deer, Frazer and Cheswick.
Newill said it's not unusual for new academy graduates to work part-time jobs for more than one department in smaller municipalities.
Zachary Lukon, 33, of New Derry took a part-time job right out of the academy with Derry Township police and recently accepted a full-time offer from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
A 2007 graduate of Saint Vincent College, Lukon is no stranger to police academies. He attended the U.S. Border Patrol Academy in Artesia, N.M., and worked for the Border Patrol as a K-9 officer from 2008 to 2013.
While the Border Patrol academy was focused on terrorism and illegal immigration, the Westmoreland academy was more focused on municipal policing and serving the local community, Lukon said.
“It's definitely an adjustment — you're taking the protecting and serving part and taking it into a different aspect,” he said.
Lukon said the rewards of law enforcement, which he called “the greatest profession on earth,” far outweigh the downsides.
“When you go into a field like this, you are well aware of the dangers you can encounter at any split second. This job is like a light switch,” he said. “I think that a police officer is definitely somebody who can set aside his own personal safety to serve others.”
Mike Beachy, 38, of Markleysburg, Fayette County, was working at the Uniontown Hospital Police Department when he decided to attend the Westmoreland academy. Previously, he attended the state academy for corrections officers and spent 10 years at SCI Fayette.
A calling to the ministry interrupted his law enforcement career for 10 years, during which time he pastored a Church of God congregation and earned a degree in biblical studies from Lee University in Cleveland, Tenn. But his friends encouraged him to go into law enforcement full time.
In August, while still a student, he took a civil service test through the South Hills Area Council of Governments in the hopes of getting a job with a local department. He was hired by Moon Township and started there at the beginning of the year.
“I am the first person that Moon has hired directly out of the academy, mostly because of my age and life experience,” Beachy said. “I realize I'm an anomaly.”
The oldest in his class, Beachy has seen most of the younger graduates take part-time jobs at multiple departments.
“They're all working daylight at one department and turning around to work afternoon or night at another department,” he said. “To supplement their lack of income, they're working two or three jobs.”
Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1280, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @shuba_trib.