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‘We need to train accordingly’

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted schools all over the nation, and Riverland Community College in Austin is no exception.

While all departments have had to make adjustments, adapting to the situation has been a challenge for the Riverland Law Enforcement program, according to Law Enforcement instructor Richard Watkins.

“The safety of our students is first and foremost,” he said. “It’s one of those unique programs that does require face-to-face, hands-on instruction. During the summer, when all of this took off, we were able to step back and say, ‘Alright, this is what we have to teach. Let’s think differently.’”

Watkins said the Law Enforcement Department has been working with college administration to make the necessary adjustments to provide a safe environment for law enforcement students. This includes accommodating for social distancing in the classroom.

“We’re fortunate that we have the technology that allows us to conduct virtual classrooms if necessary, so we can do Zoom classrooms,” Watkins said.

Because some classes have a large number of students, law enforcement instructors intend to divide classes into two sections, with one section being on campus one week while the other learns virtually, then rotating for the following.

The Law Enforcement Department has also ordered masks to be distributed to the students.

But while class sizes can be adjusted and masks can be worn for increased safety, there is still the hands-on aspect of law enforcement.

“One thing that we’ve been very concerned about is some of our training is tactical-style training,” Watkins said. “This is where it becomes much more challenging because to teach law enforcement tactical aspects, such as restraints, use of force and so on, this you can’t do virtually.”

To address this, instructors have capped the class size to limit the amount of students that will be coming in for tactical training.

“We’re doing it to where one of the classes will be on a Wednesday from 1-4 p.m., then the other class will be on a Friday,” Watkins said.

To further lower risks, Watkins said they have also adjusted the curriculum.

“If we have 12 students in this class, and that’s what we’ve capped it at, we’re going to have the three faculty that teach that have four students in our squads to run radar, four students on computer patrol training, and the other four students would be doing simulator, then we’ll trade them off,” he said. “While doing this, we’re still providing the instruction, we’re still meeting the objectives of the class, but we’re doing it in smaller segments of students.”

Watkins added that the department has also purchased eye protection for all of the students.

But the pandemic is not the only issue that has resulted in changes for Riverland’s Law Enforcement program. Recent police reform legislation, passed by the Minnesota Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Tim Walz, has also impacted the program’s curriculum.

“One of the things they’ve looked at at the legislative level has been the use of video recording by means of body cameras,” Watkins said. “(Our students) will be trained on doing their job and being able to utilize recordings to critique them on what they can do better and what the public will see.”

Watkins noted the Faribault Police Department and Rice County Sheriff’s Office donated mobile vision cameras for squad cars to the program. The program will also be getting six body cameras to use during tactics training.

“Are we adjusting our curriculum? Yes we are,” Watkins said. “We took the approach that this is being mandated to the police field, so we need to train accordingly now and get students used to being recorded.”

Watkins, who spent 29 years in law enforcement, said he had familiarity with body cameras.

“There is tremendous benefit (in body camera use) for the officers as well as for the criminal justice system and the public,” he said.

Riverland’s Law Enforcement program will soon put these changes to the test as fall semester classes are scheduled to begin Aug. 24.

“We’ve had tremendous support from our administration,” Watkins said. “Our enrollment is doing very well. We want to try to keep as much of this going if we can and we accomplish that by the distancing.

“Are we adapting to this? Absolutely! We have to!”