On April 20, 1999, Rachel Watts was in seventh grade in Littleton, Colo., when a deadly episode people now remember as the Columbine High School massacre occurred.
Watts, now 22, was attending a middle school about 5 minutes away that day, so she was not at the high school. But she would never forget what happened. Her youth group mentor, Cassie Bernall, was among those killed by the two gun-wielding, bomb-throwing boys who terrorized the school before killing themselves.
She remembers how residents complained that law enforcement didn’t act fast enough to stop the killing. Rather than complain, she wanted to make a difference.
Today she’s living in Columbus, having moved here with her husband, who’s in the Army. On Friday she graduated from the Regional Police Academy at Columbus State University. She’s one of 20 graduates the Columbus Police Department is hiring with money from a 1 percent sales tax voters passed last July.
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The group is not the first of the department’s new hires to graduate; eight hired with sales tax funds previously completed the 10-week course.
But the class graduating Friday was the largest contingent of sales tax-funded recruits so far. The police force had 388 officers when city leaders pledged to add 100 more if the tax passed. Police Maj. Wanna Barker-Wright said the department now is 46 officers short of the new target, 488.
Another recruit graduating Friday was Mike Spencer, 35, who grew up in West Branch, Mich. He served three years in the Air Force, finding targets for Stealth bombers. Later he ran a construction company.
Yet he always wanted to be a police officer.
Because police were like heroes to him when he was a kid, Spencer said. He had an abusive, alcoholic stepfather and wound up in foster care from age 13 through 18. When his stepfather caused trouble, the police came to straighten it out. They became role models to him.
Today Spencer is a single dad. His son turns 12 Sunday.
Like Spencer, Priscilla Jones, 27, saw police officers as guardians who came to her rescue. “I was involved in an abusive relationship,” she said.
The 1999 Carver graduate now is the mother of three children ages 7, 8 and 11. What she went through “made me a stronger person,” she said, and it made her want to be a police officer. Now she will be.
So will Brandy Griffin, 25, of LaGrange, Ga., a University of Georgia graduate in criminal justice who wants to be a detective, but has a broad interest in the justice system and its effect on society. Keith Lavalle, 36, a native of Cranston, R.I., decided to stay in Columbus when he got out of the Army, in which he developed an intense interest in urban warfare. He hopes one day to join the federal Drug Enforcement Agency.
One recruit who didn’t graduate Friday was Dorian Knox, 25, a 2002 graduate of Shaw High School. He has a bachelor’s degree in exercise science from CSU. With two sons, he wants to be a police officer partly “to protect my family,” he said.
He did not pass the academy’s emergency vehicle operation course, but will take it again, as will another recruit who otherwise would have graduated Friday. Instructors say recruits typically pass it after practice.
The graduates still aren’t ready for street duty. They have to take radar training and defensive tactics, and learn about police department policies and procedures. After about a month more of classroom work, they will tag along with a field training officer for a few months before they can patrol on their own.