Connecticut recruits undeterred by hostility toward police

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NEW LONDON, Conn. (AP) — When Deep River resident Danielle Proper was deciding what career to choose more than a decade ago, she had one main requirement: She wanted to be able to give back to her community.

Torn between two paths — education and law enforcement — the 34-year-old opted for the former and influenced lives for years as a teacher and a coach.

But Proper eventually realized she could affect more than just children through law enforcement.

Hired last December to be stationed in the New Haven court system, she completed the Judicial Marshal Services Training Academy earlier this year.

She didn’t know then that just a few months later, on June 23, she would be laid off.

Now Proper is in the process of applying to become one of the Waterford Police Department’s newest officers.

“In today’s society, most people are running from law enforcement when I want to go in,” Proper acknowledged. “But I want to live in and make a difference in my community.”

Across the region, recruits and rookie officers echoed Proper when explaining why, despite being in the midst of what many consider a volatile time for police, they want to get into the field.

For Groton City recruit Stephanie Contreras, who on Sept. 15 will graduate from the Connecticut Police Academy, negativity toward police — which some officers feel has been growing ever since former police Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. — has served as a motivation of sorts.

“As weird as it sounds, (the negativity) made me strive more to earn a spot in the academy,” the 25-year-old said, explaining that she’s determined to show people that police “are here as good people.”

“I never sat back and thought, ‘Do I really want to pursue this at this time?'” she said.

And although they left her sad and angry, the shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge, La., that left a total of eight officers dead haven’t scared her off.

An Atlantic City, N.J., native, Contreras has been in the region for almost 20 years. For the past eight, she’s worked closely with law enforcement and residents in Groton and other towns as an instructor with Gabriele’s Martial Arts.

“I love working with people,” she said, describing one of the main reasons she decided to make the switch to law enforcement. “I want to build relationships with the people I’ll be seeing. I want to make sure I’m that person someone can rely on before they need help.”

Stonington police rookie Officer Brett Cody said he has a similar goal, although he had no ties to southeastern Connecticut before joining the force.

“My hope and dream is to continue to impact people’s lives,” said Cody, who’s been out of the academy and with the department for about a month. “That’s all I want to do. That’s why I took the job.”

The 24-year-old Thomaston native said he was a typical kid in that he wanted to be an officer when he grew up, but it wasn’t until March 2014 that he took the first step toward becoming one.

At that time going to school, working part-time at a bank and applying for full-time jobs, Cody took a trip to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to take a police officer entrance exam with a friend.

He had an inkling that law enforcement would be more exciting than the banking job he’d begun to dislike, and a ride-along with an officer sealed the deal.

“I decided I couldn’t see myself wearing a shirt and tie every day, sitting in an office behind a computer screen,” Cody said. “I needed to get up and do something.”

Boredom is also what pushed Groton Town police rookie Officer Evan Grasser into the field.

Now in his second month of being on patrol by himself, Grasser, 24, said policing is far more interesting than working in horticulture, his job before joining the force.

“There’s always something new to learn,” he said, rattling off the types of calls to which he responds: larcenies, medical calls, motor vehicle issues, you name it. “The field training officers told me I wasn’t going to see everything in training. They weren’t kidding.”

Although Grasser, who was born in New London but raised in Groton, isn’t yet sure whether he wants to climb the ranks in patrol, become a detective or do something else, he’s pretty certain about one thing.

“I don’t think I’d ever leave this department,” he said. “I grew up here.”

In Waterford and in Ledyard, respectively, officers Patrick Epps and Ryan Foster said the same thing.

Of recent incidents of white police officers shooting black men, Epps said it’s important to remember every situation has multiple angles.

“Everyone wants to quarterback police officers’ decisions, but they’re not actually there in that moment, going through what those officers are going through,” said Epps, a 27-year-old whose father was an officer in New London for eight years. “People don’t know how they would react.”

Epps, who described himself as half-black, said that in the roughly six months he’s worked with the department, people have told him on three separate occasions that he was being racist.

“People are too quick to think everything is done because of their minority status,” he said. “When I go to a call, white, black, Asian, Hispanic, it doesn’t matter to me: I treat everyone the same. I give them respect and expect them to give it back.”

And there’s motivation for all officers to do so, he said. “Everyone wants to go home safe.”

Foster, who’s also been on patrol for about six months, said that, given the many interactions police across the country have with residents in their cities and towns, the incidence of violent, life-threatening altercations is relatively rare.

“Every car stop you have to worry about your safety,” the 23-year-old said, “but I’ve never been in a situation on the job yet where I’ve even had to do anything like that.”

Like the others, Foster became an officer because he “wanted to make a difference.”

So far, he said, so good.

“Every day I go into work with a smile and leave work with a smile,” he said.

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Online:

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Information from: The Day, http://www.theday.com

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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