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A group of students from Coconino High School laughed as they piled into the back of the Special Weapons and Tactics vehicle parked behind the joint Flagstaff Police Department and Coconino County Sheriff’s Office building.

The van, weighing more than an average semi-truck, was used in the recent shootout behind the El Tapatio restaurant on Route 66. The students got to feel the van’s indented armor where a bullet chipped the paint during the shootout.

The opportunity was a part of a law enforcement career day organized by Coconino County’s Arizona@Work program, which is a partnership between multiple state and local agencies. The career day was a first for the two local law enforcement agencies, but one they hope to continue in an effort to increase applicant success when applying for agency jobs. Local law enforcement agencies have had trouble recruiting citizens, a trend seen around the nation.

Out of every 17 applicants the agencies get, only one will pass through the background check, drug tests and polygraph test that are a part of the application process. Bret Axlund, deputy chief of the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office, hopes that informing the students now will help keep their records clean in the future.

“We try to educate these kids now, when they’re most vulnerable to stay on that right path and to give them an option. I went through the same thing when I was around this age and that’s really what hooked me when I rode along with an officer,” Axlund said. “I was able to make some good choices because every one of these kids, every day at school, has a choice.”

Auneeko Begay, a senior at Coconino High School, said he was excited for his upcoming graduation in May. Begay was thinking about going to college and enlisting in the military after high school. After the career day, he was now considering what a life in law enforcement could be like.

“I really like how [the officer] described exactly what you got to do on the SWAT team,” Begay said. “If I were to try out, I’d like to try out for the sniper position.”

The career day offered ways for students to continue interacting with with law enforcement until they are old enough to apply by volunteering in departments like search and rescue or the community emergency response team.

“If you get them in the door, hopefully you can keep them and keep them interested,” Dan Musselman, deputy chief of the Flagstaff Police Department, said.

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And many of the students were interested as some tried on bomb vests, watched officers maneuver their motorcycle, and saw search and rescue vehicles. The students laughed and joked with each other as they were exposed to different presentations from the departments.

There were two career days this week, with two separate pools of students.

Currently the police department has two vacancies for patrol officers and two vacancies in dispatch. There are multiple positions open within Coconino County for sheriff deputies, detention facility officers, juvenile detention officers and a detention facility nurse, according to the county website showing current job openings.

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Both agencies provide officers with health insurance, paid time off and other benefits.

The current law enforcement vacancies also have an impact on the work environment as well, Musselman explained. When there aren’t enough people to cover a shift on patrol, there are financial and safety implications.

“If your squad is less than fully staffed, there are less people doing more work. Then you get overtime at the end of the shift, and there are officer safety implications. We never want to send a single officer for a hot call,” Musselman said.

Nicole Neve, a senior from Coconino High School, said her father was in law enforcement in Phoenix. Neve was interested in the career day and signed up to get a sense of what her dad did on a daily basis.

She was considering what her life would be like in law enforcement before the career day, but after seeing the motorcycle patrol officers, bomb vests, bomb robots, SWAT vehicles, detention facility and other parts of the office she had a better idea of where she could fit into the department.

“I thought it would be interesting to work in dispatch,” Neve said. “I thought it was cool you get to experience what the caller is experiencing. You’re there with them and walk them through with stuff, even though you cannot completely be there with them.”

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Scott Buffon can be reached at sbuffon@azdailysun.com, on Twitter @scottbuffon or by phone at (928) 556-2250.

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