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Inside a police academy class north of Boston, there are just 34 graduates and plenty of open seats05:06
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During a police academy training session two student officers, observed by an instructor, search a building for an armed person. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
During a police academy training session two student officers, observed by an instructor, search a building for an armed person. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

In the basement of a building in Lawrence, two officers look for a potential suspect. Guns drawn and breathing heavily, they quietly search the area.

The building seems empty. But things change quickly. A man in a black jacket, armed with a knife, suddenly leaps out of a room.

One of the officers fires five shots at the suspect's chest. Then, everything stops.

The scene was staged. The suspect was an officer pretending to be an armed intruder. The knife was plastic. And the guns don’t shoot actual bullets — just yellow dye.

But for the students at the Northern Essex Community College police academy, this scenario could become very real soon. They are scheduled to graduate Friday. And as early as Monday, they’ll put on their badges and join police departments in Lawrence, Burlington and several other nearby communities.

At a police academy training session a student officer fires a paint gun as he backs away form an assailant pursuing him with a fake knife. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
At a police academy training session a student officer fires a paint gun as he backs away form an assailant pursuing him with a fake knife. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

It’s a small class — just 34 people and plenty of empty seats.

Police departments say fewer people are signing up to be police officers lately. That means smaller police academy classes and fewer rookie officers joining cities and towns.

In Massachusetts, about 10,000 people took the civil service test earlier this year, the first step to becoming an officer in many cities and towns. That's down more than a third from 2013, when more than 16,000 took the test.

"It's not shooting fish in a barrel anymore like maybe it was in years past," said Joshua Stokel, a retired police officer and the academy director at Northern Essex Community College.

Stokel said there are many reasons why recruitment is down, including the sea of help wanted ads elsewhere.

"There's the ability to make good money and maybe chase your passion in the private sector right now," he said.

Police Academy Director Joshua Stokel talks to student officers during an academy training session in Lawrence. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Police Academy Director Joshua Stokel talks to student officers during an academy training session in Lawrence. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

There are plenty of other factors, too. Like the grueling physical requirements. The sometimes outdated restrictions that turn away a generation that’s covered in tattoos and facial hair. Not to mention six months of intense training at academies like this.

And then of course, there are the angry protests over police killings and the calls for police reform.

Lawrence police Chief Roy Vasque hears it from potential recruits. They know police face greater scrutiny than ever. And they hear all the negative perceptions about policing.

"They've kind of said: I'm going to gravitate towards being a fireman or something else where everybody 'loves us,' " he said.

Vasque sent the academy just six recruits for the class that graduates Friday. He wanted to send more, but didn’t have anyone left.

"We went right through the list," Vasque said. "We ran out of applicants."

Vasque said recruitment is picking up a bit recently. He got a fresh batch of candidates after this year’s civil service test. And he plans to send 15 potential Lawrence officers to the next academy in January.

One of the officers he plans to hire from this last class is Jefferson De La Cruz, who finished his training this week and will start at the Lawrence police department on Monday.

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Student officer Jefferson De La Cruz at a police academy training session in Haverhill. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Student officer Jefferson De La Cruz at a police academy training session in Haverhill. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

"We have big shoes that we have to fill now," he said.

Growing up, De La Cruz said he never had a desire to be a police officer. But he changed his mind after joining the Army National Guard, and later worked as a volunteer officer in Lawrence during the Merrimack Valley gas explosions in 2018.

He said he wasn’t discouraged by the protests against police.

"Crisis is an opportunity," he said. "That's the way I look at it. I look at it as an opportunity for change."

Daniel Murphy also finished his training this week. He plans to join the Burlington police. His brother is already a police officer in Quincy and his dad is an officer in Woburn.

Student officer Daniel Murphy. He'll soon join the Burlington Police Department. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Student officer Daniel Murphy. He'll soon join the Burlington Police Department. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Murphy says he knows the attitude toward police has changed since his father joined the force.

"I can just remember from like when I was growing up, how police were held in a certain esteem and how they were respected," he said. "In the last couple of years, those same people are demonized."

When Murphy puts on the Burlington uniform, he hopes he can help change people’s minds.

"I look forward to coming out one day as an actual police officer and contributing to spinning it back in the positive light," he says. "I know it's going to happen — and I just want to be a part of the engine that gets it there."

Starting next week, Murphy and his fellow rookie officers will get a chance to do just that.

Northern Essex Community College police academy director Joshua Stokel talks to student officers. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Northern Essex Community College police academy director Joshua Stokel talks to student officers. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

This segment aired on November 19, 2021.

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Ally Jarmanning Twitter Senior Reporter
Ally is a senior reporter focused on criminal justice and police accountability.

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