The University of North Georgia Department of Criminal Justice has opened a high-tech firearms simulator and forensics house, an addition to its Public Safety Academy embedded in the bachelor's degree in criminal justice that provides training about proper use of force.
"One of the key parts of police training is teaching them how to use firearms properly and making them understand why we have case law that sets standards for how we respond as police officers," said Dr. Butch Newkirk, an assistant professor of criminal justice at UNG and a veteran of law enforcement. "So in our judgmental-use-of-force simulation lab, we're able to put students in there and give them different scenarios. We don't teach officers to shoot at everything, we teach them to respond to the threat."
In real life, responding to threats often means making life-and-death decisions in a split second.
"Officers have very little time to respond. They have to know their laws. They have to know when they can use force and what types of force they have to use," Newkirk said. "In the simulator, we not only train with firearms, but we train with less-than-lethal methods such as batons, pepper spray and Tasers."
Since 2015, incoming freshmen seeking a bachelor's degree in criminal justice at UNG have the option to earn law enforcement certification from the Georgia Peace Officers Standards and Training Council simultaneously with the degree. The program is cohort-based, with applicants accepted only in fall and spring with 25 to 30 students in each cohort.
While the new firearms simulator is necessary to satisfy additional requirements for UNG students pursuing certification, the forensics house provides hands-on, active learning opportunities for all students majoring in criminal justice, which currently exceeds 800.
"It gives students a taste of the real world, so that they've already used the equipment that they're going to be using in their future jobs," said Dr. Brent Paterline, head of the Department of Criminal Justice at UNG.
Alexis Sutton, a junior from Newnan is in the first cohort of students who started UNG's Public Safety Academy; she anticipates graduating from UNG with her bachelor's degree in criminal justice and POST certification in 2019. It was this opportunity that made her choose UNG from among several schools to which she had been accepted.
"Dr. Newkirk sent me an email about the POST academy here that is offered with the degree and told me to come check it out," Sutton said. "So I did and I really liked it. What ultimately made me pick UNG was the POST academy, plus you get a degree. So basically when you graduate, you'll be ready to go anywhere."
In a typical POST academy, students spend 11 weeks learning the 12 critical areas of law enforcement and many other topics. At UNG, public safety academy students will study all 12 areas and spend an entire academic course — 16 weeks — studying areas such as ethics and use of force, Newkirk said.
Sutton's eventual career goal is to become an FBI homicide detective, and she feels UNG's program will help with that pursuit.
"It shows that you're putting in the extra effort and it gives you more training than just the regular police academy," Sutton said. "It gives you more time in the classroom, more time with the firearms, more time with instructors, basically just overall more training that gets you prepared."
Andrew Berenyi, a junior has been using the simulator extensively and said it really helped to hone his skills and put him more at ease that his is earning sufficiant training. "I feel like it helps me in preparing to face scenarios on the streets," he said. "It would be extremely stressful to face something like this for the first time without having this kind of training. It has also helped to improve my marksmanship skills. I can run thousands of rounds through the simulator at little to no costs copared to what I would spend in money at the range."
Beyond courses required for the degree, students in the UNG Public Safety Academy have to complete additional training, labs and written examinations after each POST-mandated course. Upon graduating with a Bachelor of Science in criminal justice, academy students will have earned the basic law enforcement mandate certification and additional certifications in Taser, OC spray, ASP baton and patrol rifle.
UNG is the only public four-year school in Georgia with a public safety academy and one of only a couple of institutions in the nation to offer law enforcement certification within a four-year degree program.
In the few universities that have a police academy, the program is offered in the summer and is not tied in with student coursework. We run our academy differently, Paterline said.
"At UNG, our students have the POST requirements embedded in the coursework," he said. "Just like in biology, you have a lab, our students in the POST program have a lab for some of their classes. If you're not in the Public Safety Academy, you don't have that lab."