By Curt Yeomans
There was a somber feeling in the atmosphere at the graduation ceremony for the Clayton Regional Police Academy's 241st training class, at Traveler's Rest Baptist Church, in Morrow, this past Friday.
Part of it had to do with the fact that members of a class that class spokesman, Ryan Foles, described as a "group of individuals" that became a "team of brown and blue," was about to go their separate ways.
But, the atmosphere was also affected by the fact that, earlier in the week, the Clayton County Board of Commissioners decided, by a 3-2 vote, to close the academy.
Class 241, with 26 graduates, was the academy's final graduating class, Academy Director Jeff Turner announced during the ceremony.
Turner spent much of his closing remarks saluting the academy's former graduates and the departments for which they worked. He said 165 law enforcement agencies, including sheriff's offices, city and county police departments, and even state and federal law enforcement agencies relied on the academy to train recruits.
Operations at the academy are scheduled to shut down by the end of this month, Turner said. Staff will spend the coming weeks doing inventory, he said.
"This is our final graduating class. Our doors will soon be closing forever," Turner said. "I would be remiss if I did not say that, on behalf of myself, and the previous directors of this academy, it has been an absolute pleasure to serve your departments ... This academy has been around for [more than] 30 years, and at some point, or another, it has touched the lives of thousands of law enforcement officers across the state.
"They are the ones who made this academy one of the best in the state."
A few law enforcement officials from neighboring counties said they were in shock from the Board of Commissioners' decision to close the academy. Officials, including Henry County Sheriff Keith McBrayer, and Rockdale County Sheriff Jeff Wigington, said they were caught off guard by the decision. McBrayer and Wigington are members of the academy's advisory board.
"I was very surprised, because the academy had been around for a long time," said McBrayer, whose office had two new deputies graduating in the final class.
Wigington had four new deputies graduate from the academy on Friday. He said, "We were all stunned. I'm just shocked by it," Wigington said. "I know we are all struggling with money, and having to do whatever we need to do, but I didn't see this coming at all."
Potential law enforcement officers are required to receive training from a Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council-approved training academy. According to P.O.S.T.'s web site, there will be 13 approved regional academies left in the state after the Clayton County academy closes.
Wigington said the Rockdale County Sheriff's Office had been sending recruits to the Clayton County academy "for years." He said the academy was popular with local law enforcement officials because it had a reputation for doing a good job of preparing people to serve as law enforcement officers.
"We chose to send our recruits there, because it was a militaristic-type training program," Wigington said. "We felt like they are better trained here than anywhere else."
Now, law enforcement officials, spread out across 18 Georgia counties, have to decide where they will send their recruits. "They are going to have to go somewhere else, or have their own training academy," Turner said. "It will be up to them to decide what to do next."
With the sudden closure of the local academy, several law enforcement agencies now have only a matter of weeks to find a new place to send their recruits. Wigington and McBrayer said the news that the Clayton academy is closing is still so fresh, they have not had enough time to decide where their recruits will be trained in the future.
"All of this happened so quickly," McBrayer said. "We will have to re-evaluate what we're going to do now."
Wigington said he does not have much time to make a decision, however. "The next group of recruits is set to begin soon, so I have to make a decision within the next couple of weeks," he said. "At this point, I'm afraid the other academies may already be full."
Some of the academy's newest graduates said they were as surprised as local law enforcement officials were by the decision to close the academy. "We were a little surprised, but we didn't let it distract us from finishing our training," said graduate Ryan Foles. He was a pre-service graduate, meaning he got his law enforcement training and certification before gaining employment with a law enforcement agency.
Graduate Maria Greathouse, a new Henry County Sheriff's deputy, said one of the things she enjoyed about the academy was the passion the instructors had for teaching future law enforcement officers. She said that is what saddens her about the closing of the academy.
"The passion that the instructors had is what got us through our training," Greathouse said. "I'm sad that a lot of other recruits are not going to get the dedication, and passion that the instructors have to give."
One of those instructors, Lt. Jeff Nelson, said the fact that this was the last graduating class made Friday night's ceremony a sad affair for the academy's staff. Nelson said he taught 65 classes (the classes go through in 10-week sessions) during the seven years he worked at the academy. He said memories of all of the classes he taught were racing through his head during the ceremony.
"I can't speak for the other members of the staff, but I was absolutely devastated when I found out [about the closure]," Nelson said. "I love my job. I literally woke up every morning looking forward to training future law enforcement officers. I'm going to miss my job."