For decades, Watertown Police Lt. James O’Connor has had the goal of attending the FBI’s National Academy, and this year he finally got the chance to be one of the select few members of law enforcement to attend the course. After the intense 10-week program one of the most prize possessions he returned home with was a brick covered in yellow paint sitting on a wooden stand.
Just one percent of the nation’s local, county and state law enforcement officers get the chance to attend the National Academy at the FBI Training Academy in Quantico, Virginia. O’Connor was part of a class of 223 people from 48 states and 18 countries outside the U.S.
O’Connor, a Watertown native, first heard about the National Academy when he was a young police.
“I have a friend who went through it, and I went to visit him (at the Academy) in 1997,” O’Connor said. “I was a Baltimore cop at the time. It is just something I put on my radar, when I set my goals. It is considered the best police training in the world.”
Seven members of the Watertown Police have gone to the Academy, but not for 21 years. The last one was Edward Deveau, who went on to become Police Chief. Others include former Watertown Police Chiefs John Jackson and Robert Kelly, as well as, Det. Peter Seminara, Stephen Doherty (who became chief in Wakefield) and Capt. Richard Kelly.
The course is for officers in positions of leadership, so O’Connor had to wait a few years before he could consider applying. He returned home to Watertown after two years in Baltimore, and he has worked in every division of the WPD. He has been a lieutenant in Watertown for six years, and since 2015 has been the commander of the WPD’s Detective Division. He applied to attend the Academy five years ago, and was informed he was chosen this summer.
Attending the academy is like going to college, said O’Connor said, who had a schedule of five classes, lived in dorms and ate in a cafeteria. The courses offered are cover a variety of areas: law, behavioral science, forensic science, understanding terrorism/terrorist mindsets, leadership, communication, and health/fitness.
O’Connor chose to take Emotional Intelligence, Media and Managing the Law Enforcement Image, Forensic Science, Essentials for Law Enforcement Executives, and Contemporary Issues in Law Enforcement.
The classes often had special guests, including people who had investigated some of of the most famous cases in the United States. Some were even on scene for major events. O’Connor heard from FBI agents who worked on the Oklahoma City Bombing, on the investigation of Ted Kaczynski – the Unabomber, and the Flight 93 investigation.
“We had a fantastic lecturer, the officer who was the first responder to the Sikh Temple shooting (in Wisconsin),” O’Connor said. “this guy was shot 15 times and in the police profession that guy is a true hero. In that situation it is all about survival, and this guy did it. He’s living to tell about it.”
Some of the most interesting and valuable parts of the courses was the discussion with other members of the class, O’Connor said. They came from local police departments, sheriff’s departments, state police and in the case of the international students – national police departments. There were members of the New York Police Department, which has 38,000 officers, and then there was someone from a town in Alaska with just five officers.
“Everyone there was motivated to be there. They are excelling in their careers, they wanted to learn from other people. That’s what made it really, really good,” O’Connor said. “They want to share. They want to talk about their department, what they have done that is great and what they have don’t that they want to do better in the future.”
O’Connor was able to share his experience as a member of the Watertown Police when the Boston Marathon Bombers were captures in town. He was the shift commander the night when the shootout occurred. Others talked about investing at Ground Zero on 9/11, the San Bernardino Shooting and the shootings in Dallas.
He came away realizing that the issues faced by police in Watertown are the same issues faced by law enforcement around the country and in other nations. He also came away feeling that the WPD in a good position.
“What I did learn is the Watertown Police is in good shape compared to other departments,” O’Connor said. “We do community outreach already.”
The class also took several field trips, including to New York to visit the NYPD command center, and the 9/11 Memorial, and a few trips to Washington, D.C., where they visited the Holocaust Museum, ran around all the monuments, went to the White House and the Capitol, and visited FBI headquarters. While there, O’Connor saw a blast from the past.
“They just did a big renovation in the FBI Headquarters and they put in a museum,” O’Connor said. “The actual boat from Franklin Street (where the Boston Marathon Bomber was captured) is there.”
O’Connor posed next to the boat for more than a few photos for his classmates.
Having attended the academy, O’Connor said that Watertown will be able to take advantage of some new resources, including the FBI’s labs and the network of National Academy graduates.
“There is an alumni network, anyone that has graduated from the National Academy, and there is kind of an unwritten rule that you can call them and they will be the first one to help you out with an issue, or a case, or resources they can provide. It is reciprocal,” O’Connor said.
The Academy is not all sitting in classes. The students all have to take part in the physical fitness program, including the dreaded “Yellow Brick Road” at the end of the 10 weeks.
The 6.2 mile obstacle course through the woods has yellow brick guiding the way through the course. The course is also used by the Marines’ Officer Candidates Training School, Which also located at Quantico. Completing the course means climbing walls, scaling rock faces, going through the water and those attending the National Academy who complete the course get a Yellow Brick trophy.
“Getting the brick is almost as much as graduating from the Academy,” O’Connor said. “It is that important. You don’t want to leave without it.”
The Brick now sits on a shelf in his office in the Watertown Detective’s Division.