A trio of new officers dove into field training last week with the Superior Police Department. One thing that makes this new crop of recruits unique is that all three are women. The new officers graduated together from the police academy in Eau Claire on May 15.
Officers Hillary Peterson, Brittany Letica and Lauren Phillips bonded during the 19-week training. Nearly every night, they got together for dinner and homework or a movie.
Four days into field training in Superior, they were still in touch.
“We’ve been constantly texting each other, every time we get off shift, ‘Hey, here’s what happened today,’” Peterson said Thursday, May 27. “We already have plans to hang out because we miss each other.”
Part of the team
Although her father spent 30 years in the law enforcement and corrections field, Peterson didn’t set out to be an officer. Raised in Moose Lake, Minnesota, she opted to major in political science with a minor in women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin-Superior.
The 6-foot Peterson was the “smallest starting center in the whole WIAC” when she played basketball for the Yellowjackets. She also had the distinction of introducing then-Vice President Joe Biden during his 2012 visit to Superior Middle School.
“It was pretty sweet,” she said.
Biden was very personable and “down to earth,” asking about school and thanking her for taking the time out of her Friday morning.
For nearly five years, Peterson served as executive director of the Health Care Clinic in Superior, now located a block away from the Government Center. Serving on the Douglas County Coordinated Community Response and Douglas County Human Trafficking Response teams, she worked closely with the police department and other agencies such as the Center Against Sexual and Domestic Abuse.
“Our contact with law enforcement at the clinic was always so much longer after things happened, and it was just so frustrating to continuously see all these things happening,” Peterson said.
She took a job at the federal prison in Duluth, to see how the corrections side worked, and was again frustrated by helping out “after the fact.” The decision to join the police department gives Peterson the chance to take a proactive role, instead of a reactive one.
It also gives her a new team to work with.
“I actually really miss being on a team. There’s something about it, the camaraderie and everyone just having each other’s backs, and you’re still going to argue and people are going to make you mad, but at the end of the day you’re all working towards the same goal,” Peterson said.
One person can make a difference
Letica was born and raised in Duluth. She took time out to raise a family between graduating from Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College in 2012 and applying for the Superior Police Department.
“I love the atmosphere of Superior,” she said. “I’ve done ride-alongs in Duluth, I’ve lived there my whole life, so I know the area really well, but I love the different nature here. I love the community here.”
She was drawn to the job because she enjoys working with the public and appreciates the fact that every police call is different. Letica said she wants to help people, and Superior’s where she wants to do it.
“Everyone is so family-oriented here, and it’s very clear that everyone has each other’s backs,” she said. “Everyone is there to back everyone else up without hesitation.”
It's a difficult time to be a police officer.
"A lot of people still love law enforcement, but there’s also a lot of people who hate law enforcement and it’s very unfortunate, and I am hoping that being myself a positive person in the community of Superior, I can help make a good difference. I just want to help," Letica said. "Even just being one person, I know one person can make a difference."
Passing it on
The new officers will go through a four-phase field training in Superior, working with different field training officers. Having a diverse group of field training officers and changing instructors gives new officers varied perspectives on how to do the job, said Patrol Captain Paul Winterscheidt.
"If you had one field training officer doing all of the training for one probationary police officer, you’d have a clone. And if you have multiple FTOs, each kind of contributing their own set of knowledge DNA, then you have evolution," Winterschedit said. "Then you have that probationary police officer being the best parts of all of these officers, all these FTOs. And when this person becomes an FTO, they’re bringing a unique perspective forward, and it just continuously drives that evolution of training and tactics and ideas."
Letica and Peterson have already picked up some habits they plan to pass on.
"One thing that I really have learned from (Officer) Mikayla (LaRette) is how to talk to people, and the different tactics that she uses and the calm demeanor that she always seems to have, even though I know that she’s always watching her surroundings," Letica said.
Working with Community Policing Officer Bradley Jago has taught Peterson to think ahead and plan possible ways to handle situations before walking into a call.
Winterscheidt said the department added six new field training officers to the program last month.
"Given the number of new officers we expect to hire during the next five years, they will be kept very busy," the patrol captain said.
Three new hires were slated to begin recruit school the end of May, two lateral-entry officers from other departments will start the field training program soon and three new hires are expected to start recruit school in August. The department is authorized for 61 officers, but is hovering at just over 50 right now as retirements outpace recruitment.
"It's hard to catch up," Winterscheidt said, but rushing isn't an option. "We don’t want to compromise the quality of our hires. I think we’ve been very fortunate. We’ve hired really good police officers, we train them really well. The minute we compromise that, bad things happen. "
He said having three female officers graduate at once is rare. When Winterscheidt started in law enforcement, women represented about 10% of the workforce, and roughly 10% of applicants to the department were female. That's been growing over the years. The addition of Letica, Phillips and Peterson will bring the number of women officers in Superior up to seven.
"Women have represented a growing percentage of our applicants, which is great to see. And I think that has to do with our recruiting efforts and, you know, quite honestly, I think the reputation of the agency, too," Winterscheidt said.
The department's newest tool, a virtual reality system, takes training to the digital level. The equipment includes goggles as well as replica guns, tasers, flashlights and pepper spray canisters that interact with the virtual scenario. Participants are immersed in scenarios so lifelike that they can see smoke drifting up from a cigarette in an ashtray, WInterscheidt said. The virtual flashlight picks out shadows of in-program objects and avatars as the officer moves it, Jago said.
Prior to purchasing the $82,000 system, putting together a training scenario involved large blocks of time and a roster of police officers or actors to play the roles. The virtual reality equipment "allows us to create scenario-based training in a far more efficient, more immersive and less expensive manner," Winterscheidt said.
Superior is the first agency in the Northland to get a virtual reality system. It's not a replacement but an add-on to training. Officers will still go to the range for firearms practice and get defensive tactics training on the mat. The new system helps officers develop critical decision-making.
"This system is meant to teach people when they should be throwing the punch, when they should be making critical decisions, guide them in those decisions rather than actually throwing the punch out," Winterscheidt said. "Our first lesson plan is basically a weapon transition drill, basically transitioning between the different tools. We did that before in our live person training."
One of the attractive things about virtual reality is that training scenarios can take place more often
"Research out there has shown that short duration, high frequency training allows for better retention," Winterscheidt said. "So if we train for a half hour every two weeks rather than a three or eight hour block a couple times a year, it's far more effective. And this system allows us to do that efficiently."
He thanked the city for investing in the equipment, calling it an investment in the community.
"A number of our prospective applicants, people that are choosing where they want to work, brought that up as a reason that they found Superior PD attractive, we put a high priority on quality training," Winterscheidt said.