MAYS LANDING — Fifteen men and women sat in a small classroom Thursday morning at Atlantic Cape Community College, writing down notes from a slide projected on a board detailing federal and state laws about discrimination and civil rights.
When posed a question by their instructor, the students, clad in starched khaki uniforms and shiny black boots, stood and book-ended their answers with “sir.”
As schools across the U.S. start classes this month, these recruits are studying at the Atlantic County Police Training Center. It’s the first class of correctional police officers in the county in four years, but when they’re finished, they’ll join 500 others who have graduated from the county’s training program through 23 other classes since the late 1990s.
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The 15-week course involves physical training, military drills, firearms instruction, self-defense, emergency response, as well as instruction in the state criminal code, contraband and evidence processing, and drug identification and interdiction.
“We want to make sure they have these skills that they are going to use to do their jobs professionally and respectfully,” said Ed Thornton, the academy’s director of training.
In addition to time in the classroom, the recruits go through training at their jail. Out of this class, 10 will work at the Atlantic County jail, while three will go to Cape May County and two will go to Salem County.
“The light bulb goes on for them,” Thornton said. “It’s not just all theory in here. They have something to refer to.”
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But among the most important skills the recruits will learn is how to communicate, officials said.
David Kelsey, warden of the Atlantic County jail, was part of the fourth class at the academy. It was there he learned how to be empathetic on the job, as well as social skills, like being able to read a situation and de-escalate it if necessary.
“If you’re fair, firm and consistent each and every time you deal with things, the inmate population will respect you for it,” he said, adding the lesson has held true over his 22-year career in law enforcement working in the jail.
He said correctional police officers are police officers of their own city, where they patrol housing units instead of neighborhoods, and respond to medical emergencies, connect inmates to rehabilitation services and are there to listen and help.
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With everything they’re responsible for, Kelsey said the way correctional police officers are portrayed in movies and television — generally as abusive and corrupt — couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Officer Zachary Shurig, who’s in his eighth year at the Atlantic County jail, described his job as being “a jack of all trades,” saying he’s responded to fires and sometimes plays the role of a social worker.
“You have to go into everything with an open mind and learn to adapt to each individual person,” he said, explaining that because correctional police officers are on the custodial end of policing, they really get to know the inmates at their facilities.
And inmates often remember correctional police officers longer than the officers who arrest them, Shurig added, saying it gives them an opportunity to make a difference.
“Through the process, you become a better person,” Shurig said of his training and career. “At the end of the day, we’re here just like any other public service job, just trying to do it well.”