Journalists, State Police seek common ground
INSTITUTE, W.Va. -- Five journalists lie flat on their bellies on the firing range at the West Virginia State Police Academy in Institute, fingers poised on the trigger and eyes focused on a small red dot that dances across the surface of a cardboard target. Six more reporters wait their turn behind the ACOG optical sight of a State Police AR-15 rifle.
"Five rounds," calls the range officer. "Fire!"
Twenty-five bullets scream downrange, most hitting somewhere within the confines of the target area. For some of the reporters, it is the first time in their lives they have ever held a firearm.
Television, radio and print journalists from Charleston, Huntington and Bluefield went to the State Police Academy earlier this week. It was part of an effort to bring reporters and troopers together to find common ground.
"It's a dialogue we're creating here," said Sgt. Michael Baylous, State Police spokesman and organizer of Tuesday's State Police Media Day.
"We're trying to build a better understanding between the media and law enforcement," he said. "We hope that it might open the media's eyes to some of the things they didn't know we did."
The day began with a tour and explanation of the academy's newest facilities.
In 2007, U.S. District Court officials in Virginia ordered Purdue Pharma L.P., the makers of OxyContin, to pay $634.5 million in fines for misleading the public about the painkiller's risk of addiction.
The West Virginia State Police, which assisted in a multi-state investigation of the company, got about $25 million from the court settlement. State Police officials have used the money to build a state-of-the art gymnasium and training facility, a new firing range and to pay for other upgrades to the academy complex.
Capt. D.M. Lee, State Police training director, said the money has allowed the State Police to do things ir couldn't otherwise afford. "This building has been a long time coming," Lee said of the new gymnasium and training complex.
Reporters were then shuffled off to a typical classroom, where Lee explained the origins of the West Virginia State Police and the academy's training regimen.
Lee said the State Police is a paramilitary organization, and recruits receive military-style training.
"We induce stress from day one," he said. If trooper candidates can't take the artificial stress of training, he said, they can't handle the stress of working on the streets.
The 25-week training course includes all kinds of rules and regulations, all calculated to instill discipline and confidence in recruits. Like the military, Lee said, the State Police must first tear recruits down in order to build them back up.
"There's a method to the madness," he said.
Members of the news media were then taken to the firing range for a demonstration of the .223-caliber AR-15 patrol rifle used by state troopers. The weapon is similar to the M16 rifle used by the military.
"We're going to pull the curtain back a little bit and show you how we train police officers in this state," said Lee.
Reporters all got a chance to shoot the rifle from standing, kneeling, sitting and prone positions. Later, they shot under stress, using only a flash sight picture from a red dot electronic sight. Few found the exercise easy.
Baylous said the rifle training was to help reporters understand the realities of guns on the street. He said shooting in the real world isn't as easy as it looks on TV or in the movies.
"The public will say, 'Why didn't you shoot the gun out of his hand?' " Baylous said. "John Wayne can do that. Dale Evans can even do it. But it doesn't work that way in real life."
Reporters also tried their hands at driving a patrol car backwards through a timed obstacle course and watched a demonstration by one of the State Police bomb-sniffing dogs. They also watched cadets make simulated arrests, and took part in computerized shoot/no shoot drills that demonstrate the split-second decisions troopers are required to make when deciding whether to pull the trigger.
"Sometimes it's easy to Monday-morning quarterback about what troopers should do," Baylous said. "We're not perfect, but our troops do a good job."
In the past, relations have sometimes been strained between the State Police and local media. Sometimes the news media has been frustrated by a police organization they perceived as trying to hide something, while State Police were frustrated by reporters they perceived as trying to butt in while they were trying to investigate a crime.
Baylous said new State Police Superintendent Col. Jay Smithers wants the organization to be more open with the news media.
"We need to do more of this," Smithers told the assembled journalists Tuesday.
"The real purpose of this [media day] is to impress upon you our need to be in a better personal relationship."
Reach Rusty Marks at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1215.