For Mystal Perkins, 23, of Edmond, there was no question. She applied to be a trooper “because they are best.”
“If I'm going to be in law enforcement, I want to be the best,” Perkins said. “My dad was in law enforcement (in Chickasha) when I was younger and it was something I was always passionate about. After graduating college, it was the only thing that stuck.”
The Robert R. Lester Training Center lobby was buzzing with nervous excitement Thursday as 54 cadets signed in for their first day of the 61st Oklahoma Highway Patrol Academy.
Cadets, with suitcases and pillows in tow, spoke with family members before being shown to the rooms where they will be staying for the next 20 weeks.
“This is their first day of employment. When they come here to the academy, our main emphasis is to teach them that they are public servants,” trooper Betsy Randolph said.
“That's what the Oklahoma Highway Patrol was founded on, the principles of assisting the motoring public and providing a safe environment for our motorists on our roadways,” Randolph said.
Cadets will undergo 1,300 hours of training in public safety techniques, collision reconstruction, traffic enforcement, Oklahoma Highway Patrol history, physical fitness, patrol vehicle operations, firearms, drill and ceremony, patrol customs and courtesies, and alcohol, drug and motor vehicle/boating laws.
“We are going to do everything we can to train them so they can get out here and work by themselves,” Randolph said. “Because, as you can imagine, working here in the 77 counties of Oklahoma ... oftentimes a trooper will come out and work a county and will be the only trooper in that county for an eight- to 10-hour shift.”
Perkins, a recent exercise science graduate of Southern Nazarene University, is one of six women cadets this year, the most to start an academy, Randolph said. They made the cut from among 72 women who applied after the agency made a more concentrated effort to recruit women last year.
The patrol currently has 15 females among its 769 troopers.
Cadet Jason Owens, 35, of Midwest City, worked in the oil business.
“I'm just ready to start it. It was a long process,” Owens said. “I had actually applied for the academy last year, but didn't make it. I just think it would be exciting, interesting, an adventure, and a career for advancement and opportunity.”
Cadets applied for the academy in the summer and underwent interviews, physical agility tests, extensive background checks and polygraphs.
“It's a strenuous, time-consuming process. These are folks that didn't just wake up one day and say, ‘Hey, I think I will be in law enforcement,'” Randolph said. “They really want to be here, and we need them.”
Randolph said it would take at least one academy every year for 15 years for the patrol to increase its ranks to 925 troopers — the number authorized by the state — while factoring in retirement of current troopers.
“These troopers are desperately needed,” she said. “Our numbers are such that we have got to get more bodies out here. We have got to get them trained and get them certified and get them on the roadway.”
Cadets who complete the 20-week academy will have a 12-week break-in period when they will shadow a veteran trooper and will learn about the counties they will work in.