FORT DRUM, N.Y. (July 14, 2021) -- Nearly 30 Soldiers from the 91st Military Police Battalion completed Mountain Guardian Academy training at Fort Drum with a graduation ceremony July 6.
The academy is a blend of classroom lectures and hands-on practical exercises to test Soldiers in a variety of law enforcement situations. From traffic stops and field sobriety testing to responding to an active killer scenario, the Soldiers’ use of tactics and procedures, communication skills and decision-making abilities were evaluated over the course of 14 days of training.
“This course is designed to certify every MP in the 91st Military Police Battalion who works law enforcement operations on Fort Drum,” said Staff Sgt. William Armas, Mountain Guardian Academy noncommissioned officer in charge. “We require this from all of our Soldiers so we are certain they have the experience and knowledge to do their jobs effectively in the community.”
He said, typically, MPs will have some type of academy at every duty station to cover that state’s specific laws and policies on the installation.
“Even though we are federal, and follow all those laws, we also adopt state traffic laws on the installation,” Armas said. “Soldiers have to know the laws that apply to each installation they go to and understand them so they can enforce them.”
Academy instructors are all in-house personnel – to include 91st MP Battalion noncommissioned officers, Directorate of Emergency Services officers, Staff Judge Advocate, Criminal Investigation Division and Army Substance Abuse Program representatives.
“Soldiers hear firsthand how it actually is on the road, and getting to learn some of those experiences and lessons learned before they go out will give them a better idea of the things they will see,” Armas said.
The Mountain Guardian Academy includes 40 hours of on-the-job training, which is scenario-driven and uses role players for a more realistic and immersive experience. Armas said it covers the most prevalent incidents they may encounter on post.
“It is set up so that they have to respond exactly how they would in a real-life situation, from start to finish,” Armas said. “We can control that scenario here and evaluate them on their response, rather than putting them out there on the road where it can be weeks or months before they may experience that for the first time.”
This is the first duty station for many of the students, and Armas said that some had never administered a field sobriety test, practiced defensive tactics or handcuffed a subject until now. In the past year, COVID-19 conditions have limited the amount of hands-on training available for new MPs.
“This gets them where they need to be,” Armas said. “Everyone completing this training is 100-percent roadable – able to work the road right after graduation.”
A three-day block of instruction focused on DWI (driving while intoxicated) detection and field sobriety testing that follows the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s standardized curriculum. Volunteers are given different amounts of alcohol over a period of time so that students can test and respond to individuals with varying blood alcohol content (BAC) levels.
“We want the MPs to be able to recognize and see all the details or clues from an intoxicated person when they are doing field sobriety tests,” Armas said. “We don’t want their first time testing someone to be on the side of the road somewhere.”
From the moment they enter the room to respond to a domestic dispute or a suicide ideation (mental health) call, they are required to follow procedures without deviation. This is especially important if a case goes to litigation.
“These Soldiers have to be on top of their game, and not miss a step, because lawyers get paid thousands of dollars to poke holes in a case,” Armas said. “Soldiers have to stay in standard because everything they do is being recorded, and that’s going to be in court.”
For example, an MP must specify what type of steps a subject takes during a field sobriety test.
“You want nine heel-to-toe steps, but if you just tell him to take nine steps, and that person walks nine steps, then technically he passes,” Armas said. “Verbiage is key, and we coach them on that. Be strict, be precise.”
If students make a mistake, they receive on-the-spot corrections or they are informed after the scenario ends so they can improve on their second attempt.
“This is the place to make mistakes,” Armas said. “If there’s going to be anywhere you want an MP to make a mistake with live subjects, it’s here.”
During the emergency vehicle operations course (EVOC), students weaved around a series of safety cones across an empty parking lot – moving forward and in reverse – to test their ability to control the vehicle safely under duress.
“I have to make sure they can drive patrol cars safely and make sure they maintain control of the vehicle while multi-tasking – responding to dispatch, operating the lights and sirens,” Armas said. “Every law enforcement officer on the installation has to certify on this, and it is a yearly refresher.”
In the procedural justice course, Soldiers learned how de-escalation techniques and communication skills – not just talking, but actively listening – is crucial to their jobs.
“In today’s society, the police are portrayed sometimes as the bad people,” Armas said. “So Soldiers learn how to talk to people, and not at them. By listening more to what people have to say, we can change that perception that we just want to punish people or harm them in some way.”
The academy didn’t skimp on the paperwork, either, as students were required to fill out tickets and reports throughout the training.
“If our Soldiers take three hours to do paperwork because they are inexperienced at it, that’s three hours that they are not on the road, being proactive,” Armas said. “If we can show them how to do it efficiently now, that is cutting the time down later on.”
This was the second time Cpl. Brandon Wilson graduated from Mountain Guardian Academy. Previously assigned at Fort Drum from 2016 to 2019, he returned after serving a stint in South Korea.
“It’s always good to get refresher training,” he said. “Going to Korea for 17 months was essentially like a total lapse in law enforcement because it’s totally different overseas than being in the United States. Coming back and getting re-trained on those key points was good to have.”
Wilson said that he wasn’t familiar with procedural justice class from his previous academy experience. The course highlights the evolution of law enforcement throughout history and the need to adapt to societal change.
“I thought this would be the more challenging of the classes because it was new to me, and it was extremely informative,” he said.
As more people become reliant on social media and digital communication, he said traditional face-to-face dialogue is still one of their greatest assets.
“I’d say that 90 percent of our job is talking with people,” Wilson said. “You can de-escalate a situation just off the words you choose, instead of physical actions.”
Wilson said that while the military police mission is largely about combat support and security operations, developing their law enforcement skills makes them a more capable Soldier.
“Whether you’re getting deployed and going downrange or doing law enforcement, you’re still risking your life,” he said. “You don’t always know what situation you’re walking into, whether you’re kicking a door down in Afghanistan or responding to a domestic call.”
Wilson said that the academy sets the foundation for their success as MPs because it validates their skills and builds confidence in their abilities.
Pfc. Haley Lawhorn said she felt that self-assurance during the academy, and she earned Guardian of the Cycle for exceptional performance.
“Personally, I had a confidence in myself as I was going through the training,” she said. “I felt that the biggest challenge is having the knowledge that when we are out there, it could be a normal day for us but we could be dealing with someone’s absolute worse day,” she said. “And we are there to make it better.”
At the graduation ceremony, Lt. Col. Anthony Howell, 91st MP Battalion commander, and Fort Drum Chief of Police Todd Julian encouraged the Soldiers to be civic-minded and promote a positive presence when interacting with community members.
This is something Lawhorn is ready to apply when she goes on patrol.
“I realized in our training cycle that there was a big emphasis on community policing, and I absolutely love that,” she said. “I joined the Army as an MP so I could serve my community.”