DNR trains potential conservation officers by testing character

JOHNSON COUNTY, Ind. -- A handful of trainees hoping to become Indiana conservation officers worked to complete the final hours of a unique training program Wednesday. At the end of it, conservation officers hope they have eight more ready to join their ranks at a time when staffing is down.

The tests at DNR's core values training are about a lot more than physical strength, though.

"When someone is under stress that is a true test of what character they have, how are they going to behave when they're out by themselves working with the public," training Sgt. Cora Showalter said.

The recruits are put through physical and mental stresses for four weeks to test their character and values.

"We need to push them to failure because we need to teach them to grow mentally and to find out when their body says no they they're capable of going further," Conservation Officer and senior drill instructor Dustin Whitehead said. "They're gonna be exposed to that in real life situations behind the badge."

Wednesday alone, the trainees ran 10 miles, put on 30-pound packs and set off on a nine-mile individual march with tasks along the way before starting training that goes on until 9 a.m. Thursday.

But Showalter said during their assignments, what trainees don't know is that they're often watched as they complete tasks before they're asked to report on their success and failure.

"If they can take the criticism that they didn't do what they said they did and then move forward and grow on it right that's growth that we want," Showalter said. "But we've also found people that will say, 'Yup, I didn't do what I was supposed to do,' and they continue to reflect that pattern on through the training and they'll never be successful."

The training comes as DNR is down 20 officers, according to Showalter.

"There's a nationwide trend where law enforcement is having problems hiring people and we're down just like everybody else," Showalter said.

She said this is one of the smallest training classes they've had, though the only one where each person has made it this far. The applicant pool started at 168, but after a prerequisite exam, written test, application, interview, polygraph, physical exam and mental health exam, only eight are left.

"It's been very stressful and very strenuous on all of us but it's been very rewarding because we've learned things that we're gonna have to use for the rest of our careers," Jordan Wagner, a trainee, said.

This week's training is just one part of a year's long process, though. Next, trainees go to law enforcement academy, then essentials training and field training.