Next Steps for New SCDNR Officers: Into the Field
On a recent overcast Friday morning in a classroom at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Facility in Charleston, fifteen South Carolina Department of Natural Resources officers in crisp, green uniforms and shiny black boots paid careful attention as staff attorneys from the SCDNR’s legal office ran through some of the various scenarios they might encounter while prosecuting game and fish or boating violations in magistrate’s court. It was their last day of formal training before joining their SCDNR Law Enforcement Division colleagues patrolling the woods and waters of the state.
After each “case” (based on actual cases prosecuted by the SCDNR) was presented, a panel of judges that included SCDNR staff attorney Craig Jones and agency Chief Counsel Shannon Bobbertz provided feedback to the officers. Jones, playing the role of an opposing defense attorney, aggressively tried to poke holes in the prosecution of each case. The defendants were played by experienced SCDNR officers. A few of the trainees, those with previous experience with court appearances via their jobs at other law enforcement agencies prior to signing on with the SCDNR, readily shared their experiences with their younger colleagues in the “mock trial” scenarios presented by the attorneys and SCDNR training supervisors, veteran officers H. Huger McClellan and Lt. Russell Monnet.
It was the last step in a rigorous six months of formal training for the group of fourteen men and one woman, and the culmination for many of a lifelong ambition to wear the green uniform of an SCDNR Law Enforcement Officer. At the end of class, these newest SCDNR officers dispersed across the state to twelve different counties to begin their new careers, and their new lives. For some, starting work in a new county meant finding a new apartment to rent. But for several of the new officers, this new stage of their work life coincides with other personal landmarks. Several of the new officers either got married during the training period or have weddings planned. For them, the beginning of a new career will coincide with the beginning of a new family. Really, more like two new families. It’s not unusual to hear the job described as a “calling” or “a way of life” by those who wear the uniform.
For many of the younger members of the group, this will be their first job in law enforcement, and quite possibly their last/only one. The retention rate among SCDNR officers is extremely high. Veteran officers like Huger McClellan, who has decades of experience on the job, and has seen just about every twist, turn and curveball that it can bring, are quick to tell you that there’s no better job, or finer agency to be associated with. For McClellan, the green shirt, trousers and badge aren’t just another work uniform, they are a source of pride and a potent symbol of the dedication required of the state’s “game wardens,” which is a mindset he works hard to instill in each group of new officers he trains.
The group began their journey from new hire/recruit to working officer nearly six months ago. Chosen from among their peers in an extremely competitive applicant pool of more than 500 men and women after a rigorous series of aptitude and physical tests, background investigations and multiple interviews with senior SCDNR leadership, the fourteen men and one woman of the “Class of 2017” who met the final test mustered at the SCDNR’s Styx Receiving Compound near Columbia back in January for their initial orientation. There, they were issued gear, uniforms, vehicles, badges and credentials, and a challenge, from Col. Chisolm Frampton, the Deputy Director of the DNR’s Law Enforcement Division.
“I want you to get the sense of the legacy and the heritage of what this job means to us,” Col. Frampton told the group. This job is special…it’s a different brand of law enforcement. We wouldn’t have five hundred people wanting these jobs if it wasn’t something special.” [See the story “Best of the Best” on the S.C. Natural Resources Blog].
For about half of the new hires, the next step would be twelve continuous weeks of school and training at the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy alongside other recruits from the S.C. Highway Patrol, Sherriff’s Departments and other agencies. For the officers transferring from other agencies who had already been through the CJA program (known as credentialed officers), the next 3 months would involve “on-the-job” training instead — working and patrolling alongside members their assigned county unit. Once the uncertified hires completed the academy training, the entire class would come together again at the Webb Wildlife Center in the spring for four weeks of “Wildlife School,” a hands-on curriculum created by the SCDNR covering the wide range of specific situations officers are likely to encounter in the field—everything from routine checks of hunting and fishing licenses, or investigating violations to dealing with natural disasters or search and rescue scenarios. After that, the group began another four weeks in Charleston covering all things boating-related — everything from operating the various types of vessels used by officers in the field, to boating laws applicable to state waters, procedures for BUI investigations and enforcement, and how to board all types of recreational or commercial fishing vessels in all types of conditions, night or day.
When it was over, ever single member of the new class had passed the test, and all stood together for one last time on a dock at the training center, frozen in time now, just like the faded black and white photos of “game warden” classes from decades past, hanging in the glass case at SCDNR headquarters. A steady wind blew across the waters of the harbor, and an American flag flying from one of the vessels moored at the dock snapped in the breeze. A shutter clicked to capture the moment, one of likely thousands in the careers to come, and the group was dismissed. Time to load up, head home and get ready to go to work.