Updated: Thursday, 28 Oct 2010, 8:27 AM EDT
Published : Thursday, 28 Oct 2010, 8:27 AM EDT
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - James Dean Morton has a movie star name and a middle-aged body.
That's not to suggest he's in poor physical shape.
Quite the contrary -- the 54-year-old from Chesapeake is days into a grueling 42-week course to become a state police trooper, gutting it out alongside dozens of other recruits, some of whom are about half his age.
The days are long and start early. Academy trainers put prospective troopers through a paramilitary program stressing discipline, order and physical and scholastic achievement to prepare them for the rigors of patrolling Virginia's highways and protecting the public.
The combination of mental and physical demands and the lack of sleep have given Morton a new appreciation for that extra 15 minutes of rest he used to get in the morning.
Sgt. A.J. Puckett, one of the academy instructors, said: "We're very hard on them. We want to induce stress on them here," so troopers can handle it in the field.
Morton is one of 79 remaining trainees in the academy class at Virginia State Police headquarters in suburban Richmond.
Although he's the oldest in his class -- and one of the oldest ever admitted to the academy -- the age difference hasn't fazed Morton.
"It is a little strange to be in a little different demographic," he said, but added, "We're all here for the same purpose. We all want the same thing; we all want to graduate in June."
While many trainees haven't razzed him yet about his age because "we're all still a little shell-shocked," he expects the "gramps" cracks to come in short order.
Admission into the academy is its own endurance process - Morton applied several years ago but was accepted only recently He previously did volunteer work for the agency.
"It's very competitive," state police superintendent Col. W. Steven Flaherty said.
Some 1,300 applications are evaluated to identify 80 to 90 potential trainees. All must submit to physical and mental testing, Flaherty said, "And then the background investigation is fairly brutal, too."
State police are authorized for 1,955 sworn positions but currently have 160 vacancies.
Keeping the roster of troopers at full force is challenging because the agency "can't just find somebody, hire them off the street and put them to work," Flaherty said.
State finances pose another issue.
Virginia has been racked by budget woes in recent years.
So, state police have delayed training or held academies with fewer students, Flaherty said.
He said he prefers to hold at least two training academies a year.
However, since 2005, the last year the agency had all its positions filled, it has held only eight training schools, including the current class.
This class wasn't scheduled to begin until January, but it began sooner, and with more trainees, after Gov. Bob McDonnell asked the General Assembly to restore enough funding to allow the class to start this year.
Flaherty said additional troopers are needed to handle expanded duties, such as targeting sex crimes and performing domestic security functions.
"There's more population; there's more traffic; there are more calls for service," he said. "And our responsibilities are growing every day."
Unlike sheriff's offices across Virginia, which have staffing ratios written into state law, there is no legal mechanism to increase the number of troopers to keep pace with population growth, Flaherty said.
One advantage for state police in recruiting is the lack of an age restriction.
If a person is approved for training and successfully completes all course requirements, he or she is eligible to become a trooper. Such is the case for Morton.
In fact, he wouldn't have been the oldest in his class had a 62-year-old not declined an invitation.
Raised in Virginia Beach, Morton most recently worked in the lending industry before applying to the state police, motivated by a longtime interest in law enforcement and growing tired of looking at credit reports.
Morton is single, so the time commitment the program requires hasn't kept him away from family obligations, but its other demands are plenty.
"I don't think I'd want to be any older than my age" and go through it, he said.
Information from: The Virginian-Pilot
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