ONE YEAR LATER…A LOOK AT OVPD CADETS A YEAR AFTER GRADUATION - The Explorer: Import

ONE YEAR LATER…A LOOK AT OVPD CADETS A YEAR AFTER GRADUATION

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Posted: Sunday, January 5, 2003 12:00 am | Updated: 7:47 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

There were six when they stepped off the stage at the Holiday Inn Holidome a year ago in December, graduates of the largest class of Oro Valley police recruits ever.

In the order in which they were called to the stage to receive their badges that December day, the graduates were Kristine Filippelli, 25, Heidi Hardman, 26, Leigh Horetski, Chris Palic, 23, Garrett Ryan, 25, and Jeffrey Wadleigh, 25.

Today, only Filippelli, Palic and Horetski remain on the force. Ryan and Hardman resigned, much to the department's surprise, and Wadleigh was discharged for failing to perform to department standards, according to an evaluation report obtained through a public records request.

In a series of stories beginning in September 2001, the Northwest EXPLORER followed the recruits through more than 16 weeks and 700 hours of training at the Tucson Public Safety Academy's Southern Arizona Law Enforcement Training Center.

Those were four excrutiating months of training officers screaming in their faces in paramilitary fashion as they underwent a constant stream of tests ranging from constitutional and criminal law and rules of evidence to dealing with domestic violence, traffic stops, disaster response and high-speed pursuits.

But by bonding together as they were warned to do to survive, they all made it. Their class was among the few to complete training without a single dropout.

As they began training with supervisory officers following their graduation, plans were being made for a grand party once they began patrolling on their own. That party, however, never came to pass.

Wadleigh, a University of Arizona graduate who on entering the academy would describe his goal of becoming a cop as "the greatest accomplishment of my life," was the first to go.

The department's evaluation of Wadleigh, leading up to his Feb. 12, 2002 discharge, offers great insight into the impact stresses the job can have on a rookie cop.

In that evaluation, supervising officers noted several driving violations he committed during his training, including illegal U-turns, speeding, running a stop sign, following too close while trying to read the license plates of another car, driving left of the center line and being nearly broadsided by a vehicle while making a left turn.

The evaluation also referred to several incidents during which Wadleigh became "visibly flustered," had "virtually no contact or involvement" with an investigation, "wasn't even aware of his surroundings and verged on hyperventilating."

While enroute to a traffic accident involving injuries, according to the evaluation, Wadleigh's training officer noted the young officer's tunnel vision, heavy breathing, heavy grip on his car's steering wheel and the need to instruct him where to park and what to do when he arrived.

Wadleigh was also having trouble learning police codes, finding locations of calls, struggling with having direct contact with the public and remembering to turn on his car radio to receive calls.

"Based upon what has been observed by his training staff, documented in the training file and reviewed by his training board, it is my opinion that Officer Wadleigh has not successfully performed at a level that will allow him to continue as an Oro Valley police officer in a safe and efficient manner," his supervisor wrote in a memo to Chief Danny Sharp dated Feb. 8.

Wadleigh, who is continuing to pursue a career in law enforcement, was extremely hesitant in a recent interview to challenge those findings for fear of the effect such an action might have on future employment. He referred broadly to department politics, numerous inaccuracies in the evaluation and personality conflicts with supervising officers who gave other recruits much more leeway in ignoring things they did wrong than he was given.

Circumstances as described in the evaluation were a lot different in reality, Wadleigh said, offering as an example his training officer allowing him to drive early on because of the trust his supervisor had in him even though he wasn't supposed to at that time.

Despite the apparent shortcomings and the assessment of supervisors that "additional time will not correct the deficiencies,” Wadleigh's employee action form is marked "recommended for rehire," meaning that "sometime down the road" reapplication might be possible.

Hardman, in a move members of the department said came as a "total surprise," resigned exactly a month after Wadleigh's discharge.

"During the time I was here, I enjoyed the staff and liked working for this department," Hardman wrote in her resignation letter. " I will always have nothing but good to say about the OVPD. I wouldn't have been employed here if I didn't think it was the best agency.

"After the academy and field officer training, 'the real world' was at my fingertips. I realized it was not for me. My school, my goals all pointed me in this direction - becoming a police officer - but it was just not for me."

Hardman, who has reportedly returned to her native Utah where she is working with handicapped children, could not be reached for comment, either directly or through relatives and friends.

According to all accounts, Hardman was doing fine, as was expected of someone with her background.

Prior to being accepted as an Oro Valley police candidate, Hardman, who had a bachelor's degree in criminal justice, and experience as a corrections officer with the Salt Lake City Sheriff's Office, had applied with four different law enforcement agencies, turned down a job with the Arizona Department of Corrections and was in the final stage of the hiring process as a corrections officer with the Pima County Sheriff's Department.

Sgt. Aaron LeSuer, one of OVPD's training officers, tried to explain resignations in terms of how often, at some point in their careers, whether during training or long after, officers decide they're no longer suited to meet the requirements of the job.

"The job changes every day and you have to do things differently," he said. "Some just aren't able to adjust to that constant change."

It was Ryan's resignation in July, however, that really came as a shock, department supervisors said.

Ryan, after all, was a Regents Scholar at the UA and winner of the class academic achievement award at his graduation ceremony. One of his three brothers is a police chief in St. Francis, Kan., and Ryan himself was given a "can't miss" tag as an officer who one day might be able to write his own ticket in terms of career advancement.

"I am very appreciative of the opportunity that the department provided for me and will be forever grateful," Ryan wrote in his July resignation letter. "However, after much thought and consideration, I feel it it time for me to pursue other endeavors. This decision was not made alone. A considerable amount of input from various individuals, both within the department as well as outside it, helped me reach this conclusion."

Calls to Ryan for comment were not returned.

The resignation "floored everyone," said Bob Easton, head of OVPD's Office of Professional Development, adding that Ryan had apparently always been driven by two passions, law enforcement and weightlifting, and decided to follow the latter path when reducing his status from full time to part-time reserve officer didn't give him the time he needed to do so. Ryan had been a participant in the Highland games and yearned to participate in the Strongman competition as well.

"What do you in a case like that, tell him no?" Easton said.

Because losing half the recruit class was such an extraordinary event, the department has extended its post academy training period from nine to 12 weeks, including two weeks in the office, two four-week sessions with a training officer, then two more weeks with another officer to provide greater exposure to the demands of the job before sending new officers out alone to reduce the potential for future recruits leaving so soon.

For the survivors, especially Palic and Filippelli, days are filled now with a sense that they can handle anything that comes their way, though it's not always easy.

"One of the hardest things I find is that often you don't get closure for yourself," in terms of finding out what happened to the people you helped, said Palic, a former punter on the UA football team who received his bachelor's degree in religious studies in May 2001. His only previous law enforcement experience was as an intern with the Pima County Juvenile Court's Juvenile Intensive Probation Supervision program.

"It would be nice to know, for example, when you've gone to an accident, whether you were able to save that person's life. Sometimes you don't find out until roll call the following day what happened, or even then.

"You go to a call and it's an overdose. Your job is to make sure the person isn't dead yet, to see there's help on the way and bring the situation under control," Palic said. "But those times when things get settled down and the person you helped says to you, 'hey, thanks,' that kind of makes your day."

Thus far the incident that has tested Palic's skills to the fullest involved a suicide call during which his responsibilities included protecting the scene, consoling relatives, doing follow-up interviews and notifying his supervising sergeant.

It was only one of the two times Palic has drawn his gun, in this case because it wasn't known whether the victim was a case of suicide or homicide. The other incident involved a reported possible armed robbery and police had no idea if there was still an armed criminal around, he said.

His hardest call emotionally thus far involved the death of an infant and battling the natural inclination, especially as a father of three whose wife had just recently given birth to twin girls, to put himself in that family's shoes.

Although still searching to find his niche, Palic said he's having a lot of fun. He likes the community he serves, he said, because of the respect its residents have for the force. "Not a day goes by that someone doesn't say thank you" whether it's for changing someone's flat tire, or checking a home where residents are on vacation, he said.

"It probably takes a month or two on your own before you really feel comfortable, but so far I really haven't felt uncomfortable with anything I've done," he said. "You learn by immersion and the more you deal with a situation, the more you learn."

Palic has since applied for an opening as a motorcycle officer.

Confidence in her ability to handle the job is something Filippelli shares with her former academy classmate. "I'm feeling really comfortable now, like I can handle anything that comes my way," she said in a recent interview.

"The best part of the job is helping someone in need," Filippelli said. "It's when I'm able to go above and beyond that I get special satisfaction. You just can't beat that feeling."

Filippelli, whose father is a homicide detective with the Tucson Police Department, had considered applying for a motorcycle officer position when the probationary period ended for her and her classmates Dec. 21, but subsequently changed her mind, deciding she needed more experience on patrol before taking on that job.

Another position Filippelli is interested in is that of a school resource officer, a position in which she feels she can make a major contribution with youths.

"Who knows, though. Right now I'm just taking things one day at a time," she said.

Meanwhile, Filippelli, whose previous background was in massage therapy, accounting and tourism, is enjoying a more regular home routine again with her husband, Jim, or as normal a routine as a couple can have when one's husband also works odd hours with the Tucson Fire Department.

"Life was a constant roller coaster," when she was in the academy, her husband said in an interview on the day Filippelli graduated.

The couple married just four months before she entered the academy and a week before that they sold their home, moved in with parents, then moved again into their new home while meeting the challenges each day presented.

"It strengthened our marriage," Jim said. "It's given us the confidence to know we'll be able to deal with the tough days that lie ahead."

When things weren't going well for Filippelli at the academy, "I just told her what she was experiencing was normal, that what it all boiled down to was getting through four months, and after all, how bad can four months be. When you get through, you'll walk a little taller because of the great sense of pride you'll have in what you've accomplished."

Being five feet tall and weighing 107 pounds was a concern to Filippelli in terms of being physically able to do the job. That concern has long since gone by the wayside.

Horetski, who has two brothers on the Oro Valley police force, suffered a shoulder injury while in the academy. She was on her own on patrol for about three months after completing in-house field training, but has been on limited duty since then, primarily taking calls and assisting detectives, according to supervisors. Calls to her at the department were not returned.

A 1997 graduate of the UA's College of Agriculture, Horetski had been a clerk in the OVPD for three and a half years before entering the academy.

Something Filippelli said on entering the academy sums up the trio's feelings about becoming cops. "I finally realized this is what I wanted out of my life, this is what I wanted to do,” she said.

They've earned it

© 2014 The Explorer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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