AK: Close combat trooper training in Sitka

Recruits warm up for their fight on human-shaped punching bags. The exercise is a lesson in determining what is a reasonable amount of force. (Photo by Emily Russell, KCAW – Sitka)

Twice a year the Trooper Academy in Sitka gets a new class of recruits. Over a 15-week period they go through everything from spelling tests to target practice. They also get close combat training. KCAW’s Emily Russell visited the Trooper Academy to get a glimpse of how officers are trained to respond to physical violence.

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Inside a room with red padded floors and blue padded walls music blasts through the speakers.

Enter a young guy in grey t-shirt, blue pants and sneakers. A black padded helmet covers most of his face.

“So he’s getting ready to start,” Lt. Chad Goeden said. “They video tape the whole thing. He introduces himself to the camera.”

Recruits watch UFC fights while waiting for their own turn at a fight (Photo by Emily Russell, KCAW – Sitka)

Goeden is the Commander here at the Department of Public Safety Training Academy, known as the Trooper Academy.

The guy in grey – he’s one of the academy’s 35 recruits. And he’s here for a fight. The recruit is wrestled to the ground by one of the instructors, who wraps his legs around him.

Finally, the recruit pulls himself away and gets up on his feet. Today’s fight is a test. Goeden and the other instructors are trying to see how recruits respond to a potential attacker.

KCAW: “When he got away from the attacker, he pulled out his gun. That’s what you’re [supposed to do]?”

GOEDEN: “Well, what we don’t know is what was the attacker saying to him?”

Lt. Chad Goeden is the Commander at the Department of Public Safety Training Academy. (Photo by Emily Russell, KCAW – Sitka)

From the sidelines, there’s no way to know what the attacker said or did right before the fight. That makes it hard to assess whether the reaction was warranted or not. Goeden says the same is true with the police videos recorded by the public.

“The public only sees what is on the video, for example and the problem with that is something unique must have happened before that in order for the person to take out their camera and start videoing in the first place and we don’t ever see that,” Goeden said. “We only see what happens after record is pressed.”

To be clear, Goeden said it’s the public’s right to press record. He even says it’s the officer’s duty to protect that right.

What this training does do is it gives recruits options for how to respond.

“My favorite maneuver that I’ve learned is shrimping, where you basically just inch your way out,” Niki Hines said. Hines is a recruit from Fairbanks. “Your hips are a great tool, just pop those hips and try to inch your way out.”

Recruit Nikki Hines is from Fairbanks. After she graduates from the Academy in June, she’ll start work with the Fairbanks Police Department. (Photo by Emily Russell, KCAW – Sitka)

Hines said she was nervous before going into today’s fight.

Hines: “Going into it I was a little worried, especially being one of the smaller people, but it’s been really fun, so I’ve enjoyed it.”

KCAW: “How tall are you?”

Hines: “I’m 5’2”.”

Hines is happy here, but she knows she’s getting into a dangerous line of work. Back in October Sgt. Allen Brandt with the Fairbanks Police Department was shot on duty. He died a few days later due to complications.

“After I found out about Sgt. Brandt I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to continue to pursue this and I’m just going to believe in God’s will,’” Hines said.

Hines was hired by the Fairbanks Police Department. After she graduates in June she’ll move back there and start work.

Others on that path to becoming officers and troopers are here, in one of the academy’s common areas. They’re sitting around on couches watching UFC fighting. They’re getting pumped up for their own turn at a fight.

Recruit Timothy Howell is training to be a Court Service Officer in Anchorage, where he’s from. (Photo by Emily Russell, KCAW – Sitka)

Timothy Howell is a recruit from Anchorage. He’s training to be a Court Service Officer. He has some bruises on him. He said the fighting is a physical experience.

“Yes ma’am it is. It’s an excellent one,” Howell said. “In my eyes the court is the house of justice and that is extremely noble. There’s something about the pursuit of justice and the application of the law that I like to see.”

Howell smiled when asked what it’s been like at the Trooper Academy.

“It has been phenomenal,” It’s been absolutely excellent. I’m really glad you asked, actually.”

You hear this a lot at the Trooper Academy. The recruits– they want to be here. That’s despite how the public’s perception of the police has changed over the years with the rise in violent police videos.

Howell and the other recruits– they know there are risks involved, and those risks begin in Sitka, in a padded training room where officers learn the physical side of law enforcement.

Recruits at the Trooper Academy practice maneuvers getting away from an attacker. (Photo by Emily Russell, KCAW – Sitka)

Today’s exercise– it’s about judging what a reasonable amount of force is. That’s the lesson Lt. Chad Goeden wants the recruits to learn and the public to understand.

“There’s no such thing as the least amount of force,” Goeden said. “What is less: if I tase you, or I pepper spray you, or I hit you with a baton, or I punch you? Which one of those is least? But they’re all reasonable if circumstances make it so.”

And the recruits here– they’re trying to plan for any and all circumstances, for the real world. After all, that’s their duty.

Emily Russell is the voice of Alaska morning news as Alaska Public Media’s Morning News Host and Producer.

Originally from the Adirondacks in upstate New York, Emily moved to Alaska in 2012. She skied her way through three winters in Fairbanks, earning her Master’s degree in Northern Studies from UAF.

Emily’s career in radio started in Nome in 2015, reporting for KNOM on everything from subsistence whale harvests to housing shortages in Native villages. She then worked for KCAW in Sitka, finally seeing what all the fuss with Southeast, Alaska was all about.

Back on the road system, Emily is looking forward to driving her Subaru around the region to hike, hunt, fish and pick as many berries as possible. When she’s not talking into the mic in the morning, Emily can be found reporting from the peaks above Anchorage to the rivers around Southcentral.

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