Police rookie finds academy disruption to be a positive

A year ago today on Dec. 16, 2019, Blake Bowers took the oath to become the Philomath Police Department’s newest officer. Launching into a career in law enforcement after relocating to a new state, Bowers looked forward to getting into the state police academy in Salem.

The thought of getting into law enforcement appealed to him on several levels, but in part because police officers constantly get to do different things and he just wanted to be a better person. Above all, he would be able to make a difference right now in somebody’s life.

The onset of the pandemic created uncertainty with the training process but despite some twists and turns, both Bowers, 27, and Police Chief Ken Rueben believe he’s actually coming out of the experience at an advantage.

“I was one month in and then COVID happened,” said Bowers, who entered the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training program in late February. “So they sent us all home and we were trying to figure out how long this is going to last.”

Bowers ended up going on ride-alongs for the next two or three months.

“I didn’t realize how awesome that was until I started going back to the academy,” Bowers said.

Rueben saw nothing but positives come out of the situation, calling the outcome great.

“The reason I say that is very rarely do we get to have a trainee in our office that’s gone to the academy for a little while and then comes back and we get to help him digest what he’s learned before sending him back to the academy,” Rueben said.

Although the academy has simulations, nothing beats the real thing.

“We were able to put him in a car with a training officer and he wasn’t able to carry a gun or anything but he actually got to go out and feel what he had learned already,” Rueben said. “I think it really helped him. He’s so far ahead right now than your traditional trainee.”

Rueben said he also sent Bowers on a few assignments that a trainee typically wouldn’t be able to do at that point in their career, such as executing search warrants and processing evidence.

“He’s very knowledgeable about computers and a real goal in his mind is to be a forensic-type investigator that uses computers to help in investigations and we let him do a lot of that in between here and going back to the academy,” Rueben added.

When those classes finally resumed at the academy, everything wasn’t back to normal with pandemic restrictions. Then fire season hit the region and impacted air quality over the final couple of weeks.

“Some of the classes we had to do inside and we had to modify things a little bit there and I was nervous we were going to get sent home for that,” he said.

The full length of the academy runs for 16 weeks and includes a vast range of training areas from survival skills to cultural diversity to drug recognition to operating firearms — just to name a few of dozens.

Bowers would’ve graduated in June if not for the delays. Instead, graduation day for the 399th Basic Police Class arrived on Sept. 24 and it was a private affair in Salem with the public not allowed to be in attendance.

After graduation for the past several weeks, Bowers has been training with Brandon Thurman. Those ride-alongs and other training outside of the academy proved to be a huge benefit, he said.

“I had so much more experience on the road,” he said. “I’ve been told that sometimes, people go (straight) to the academy and they come back and that’s the first time or first couple of times they’ve been in a patrol car.”

Rueben knows it helped on many levels.

“The camaraderie piece of being in the office and riding with the officers and every single day coming to work, absorbing all the knowledge of everybody in the office before he comes back and has to physically be a trainee again, he learned a lot in that time,” Rueben said.

Bowers didn’t have a career path to law enforcement in the forefront of his mind and described it as a profession that just sort of fell in his lap. He grew up in California and in his early 20s, he finished up his undergraduate work at the University of Texas.

“I was in a lot of positions there with some clubs I was involved in that allowed me to be in a leadership role and since I was older than a lot of the other undergrads, I was put in this position — people looked up to me and I was able to be a mentor … that was really special to me,” he said. “I was able to see what a difference a positive role model could make in people’s lives.”

One of the areas of study for Bowers in college was sociology and his work focused on criminal justice systems. In addition, the club he was involved with was doing some fundraisers for Texas game wardens and he did a few ride-alongs and discovered that he liked it.

After college, Bowers took a job with a nonprofit law firm that specializes in juvenile justice.

“I had a lot of great experiences there but it didn’t quite give me the interaction with people that I was wanting,” he said. “I’m a very social person and like to deal with people a lot and that was more of just office work.”

So how did he end up in Oregon? Bowers has a sister who lives in Corvallis and he has been visiting her since his high school days.

“I just loved Oregon — it just had a really good vibe about it and a good feeling,” he said.

Bowers left the law firm job and went to stay with his sister.

“I started applying for jobs and ended up getting the job here,” he said.

With the first year under his belt, Bowers continues to work his way through three phases of training. He’s approaching the final stage now and said he’ll be training under Mike Wulk for the next few months.

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