She was only supposed to be a chaperone when Carol Lewis agreed to accompany her son on a field trip to the North Carolina State Highway Patrol Training Academy. But as she wandered through the grounds, learning about the agency’s culture and history, Lewis started wondering what a career in law enforcement might be like for her.
She was an employment consultant at the time, a state administrator who reviewed unemployment claims when people were fired or quit. It provided a good income and she wasn’t unhappy in her job. Still, she kept thinking about that visit to the state highway patrol.
Then, she made her move. After an intense application process, she was admitted to the academy. But then her unlikely journey took another odd turn, when Lewis injured her knee and had to leave training. “I thought I was done for,” she recalls. “I had no money. No job.”
That’s when her highway patrol recruiter suggested Lewis enroll in Basic Law Enforcement Training at Central Carolina Community College. She jumped at the opportunity. Two weeks after leaving the academy, with her knee still in a brace, she drove to Sanford to pursue the plan and left with an acceptance letter and financial assistance.
Even as her knee recovered, the challenge remained formidable. Lewis was the oldest in her class, a single mom who got up at 5:30 a.m. to avoid the worst traffic between her home in Raleigh and the Emergency Services Training Center in Sanford. On the other hand, where else could she launch a new and rewarding career in just a few months?
So, that’s what she did, successfully completing her training three years ago in December and beginning her new career two months later at NC State University, where she currently is a police officer in their crime prevention unit, working directly with students, faculty and staff to enhance public safety.
“It was life-altering for both of us,” she says, looking back on that field trip with her son and the career it launched. “It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life.”
IT to SRO
As CCCC’s Department Chair of Public Safety and Basic Law Enforcement Training Director, Robert Powell remembers Lewis well, calling her a “humble, but talented person who has the ‘it’ factor” and “a tremendous leader who will be a police chief some day.” He also uses her example to make the point that Basic Law Enforcement Training students come from all different walks of life.
Then he offers another prime example: David Schau, someone Powell calls “one of the hardest working cadets who ever went through this academy.”
Schau currently works as a deputy sheriff and school resource officer at Warren Williams Alternative Elementary in Sanford, where he helps create a safe and orderly environment for young children from pre-kindergarten through fifth grade. But less than two years before accepting that position, he was a former U.S. Air Force computer maintenance specialist working in the information technology sector, where he held a variety of positions over 25 years until being caught up in a business contraction and laid off from his job.
The shift from information technology to deputy sheriff may seem strange enough. But here’s the kicker: On the second day of Basic Law Enforcement Training, Schau celebrated his 60th birthday. “I felt like the Lord called me to it, so I knew then, in my heart, I had to give 100 percent,” Schau says. “I was three times the age of the youngest cadet in my class and it was going to take me two weeks longer than the kids to get dialed in.”
But he got dialed in, even after securing a clean bill of health from colon surgery just a few weeks before the first day of class and working to catch up with his younger classmates. Now, Schau is in a job he wanted, in a setting he’s loved ever since he started reading to students years ago as a volunteer in his wife’s second grade classroom. When he first had the thought of moving into law enforcement, he knew becoming a school resource officer was his calling, and everything fell into place.
Traditional students, too
Not all Basic Law Enforcement Training students enter the field mid-career or even as retirees. Johnsie Holbrook followed the more traditional path, finishing her associate degree in criminal justice at CCCC before working in the family restaurant until she was old enough to enroll in the academy.
It’s something she always wanted to do. One of her four brothers is in law enforcement, too, and another is a corrections officer in the military, so it seems inevitable that Holbrook also would enter the field. But even she had to overcome some obstacles to make her dreams come true. In short, her family had reservations about the idea.
“It wasn’t really that my family didn’t want me to do this, but they understand it can be dangerous,” Holbrook says. “I was their only girl, so they didn’t particularly like the idea, but they support me 100 percent.”
Holbrook says she needed that support because the program was so rigorous. She goes into detail about how difficult the testing was — how she worried for days before each exam and realized that, as the youngest student in her class, she didn’t bring as much experience to training as many of her peers.
And then there was the “Red Man.” As part of the training, students learn combative techniques in case they’re needed to control and arrest people on the street. Then, they demonstrate what they’ve learned by fighting an instructor dressed in red padding from head to toe. For two minutes. With nothing but a baton.
Having never been in a fight or altercation in her life, Holbrook says she was nervous when she stepped onto the mat, and she took her share of contact. But she made it to the end and remained smiling the entire time “so they didn’t know if I was crazy or didn’t know what to do with myself.”
Now, Holbrook also is an officer on the NC State University Police Department, having emerged from the “Red Man” experience — and all of her law enforcement training — proud of her accomplishment. She calls it “probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
The big attraction
Though they come from different directions and walks of life, Basic Law Enforcement Training students have some things in common.
Powell says many want to test themselves — like Holbrook, whom he describes as “a tenacious spirit who will not quit, either physically or intellectually.” And they have a genuine desire to serve others and give back to their community — including Lewis, who carries that sense of public service into the community as volunteer coach for the Carolina Eagles Track and Field Club in Raleigh.
But another big attraction, Powell says, is the opportunity to prepare for an important, rewarding career in just 16 weeks taking day classes or less than eight months in the evening.
“They each overcame the odds and now they serve as law enforcement officers in their communities,” Powell says about his former students, Lewis, Schau and Holbrook. “Where else can you find results that quickly but at a community college?”
Editor’s note: This perspective was first published on the Central Carolina Community College website. It has been posted with the author’s permission.