New faces on the highways

They’ve been in the field for months now, since spring, but only since October began have they been on their own, their field training periods ended, their supervisory officers no longer riding shotgun. They are Arkansas’s newest state troopers, varying in age and prior law enforcement experience, but all determined, they say, to make a difference. Forget the speed limit, or ignore it, and those blue lights in your rear view mirror may belong to one of the Class of ‘12.

Six of those new badges are in Southeast Arkansas, and Jefferson County especially, though not all are new faces.

For example, there’s Zach Varnell, a Watson Chapel grad, born and raised in Pine Bluff, and recently a catcher with an Arizona Diamondbacks farm club. He was a semester away from his teaching degree and, likely, a high school coaching job when did a “ride-along” with an ASP trooper “and it hit me like a ton of bricks: this is what I’m meant to do.” Varnell applied to the agency the following day and “got lucky,” obtaining a slot at the Academy on his first try. Which rhymes with cry: “I just busted out in tears” upon hearing that his 13-month old daughter had begun walking during his first week away at troop school. “Standing for the right thing” is important to Varnell, who hopes to eventually join the ASP’s SWAT team. He’s now based at Redfield.

Varnell wasn’t alone in a bit of homesickness: having three kids back in Pine Bluff, it wasn’t just the physical conditioning (“really tough”) that weighed on cadet Marshall Williams, who had been a sergeant with the city’s narcotics detail before joining the ASP. His wife, Amanda, “had a hard time” with his being away at the Academy. On second thought: “Both of us did.” But he’s back in Jefferson County now, as Trooper Marshall Williams. With a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, he hopes to return to drug enforcement with the ASP.

Williams, with 11 years on the Pine Bluff force, had almost thrice the seniority of Jerome Sanders, who entered the Academy alongside him. As a PBPD officer, Sanders had several friends with the ASP and, when accepted to the agency’s four-month training program, chose to delay earning the three credit hours he needed for a master’s degree in education, and he did it with the blessing of his wife, “supportive in everything I do.” Sanders wants to stay in the highway patrol division “for a while” and then, hopefully, move up the chain of command. “I want to pass along the tradition,” perhaps even to his children. Another Watson Chapel alumni, he’s again in Pine Bluff.

So is Jerry Lee Oglesby, a PBHS and Southern Arkansas Tech grad, a veteran of four years at the PBPD and still a newlywed: he and Shirley, with six kids between them, married six weeks before troop school began. He’s another kind of vet: eight years of active duty and four in the reserves, a satellite communications specialist who did two tours in Iraq. Since he “hates being behind a desk and loves being out with people, I’ll probably still be on the highway in 30 years.”

Ryan Felton had six years with the Benton police before reporting to the Academy with the encouragement of wife Lauren, who is “very happy, proud. She’s accustomed to law enforcement.” The first week of troop school was the toughest “because of the chaos that’s imposed — you don’t know what’s going on at the time.” In Jefferson County he’s on patrol, which he likes, but aspires to work in drug interdiction, which he likes even better.

In next-door Lincoln County, Chris Crim has reported for duty after waiting two years to get a bid to the academy, which was “pretty intense.” With a wife of nine years and two daughters aged 7 and 4 “who are behind me 100 percent,” Crim says he got the training he needed to resolve their concerns for his safety as well as his own. He’d like to eventually try the ASP’s executive protection detail, but first has to prove himself on the highway. “You gotta have integrity when you’re on the street because you’re supervisor isn’t always around. You have to supervise yourself.”

May they all continue to be lucky.

They were among the 3,483 men and women who initially applied for the last troop school, and among the 29 who survived a battery of physical and mental tests, a polygraph exam and an extensive background education and the 16-week training program. That takes more than luck.

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Steve Barnes is host of Arkansas Week on AETN.