UP FOR THE CHALLENGE

December 22, 2001 12:00 am
OVER THE WALL: The 6-foot wood wall just about proved too much for Union County Sheriff Steve Oliver during the cross-country obstacle course at the FBI National Academy, he said. But he made it over the wall. Twice. (Submitted photo).
OVER THE WALL: The 6-foot wood wall just about proved too much for Union County Sheriff Steve Oliver during the cross-country obstacle course at the FBI National Academy, he said. But he made it over the wall. Twice. (Submitted photo).

By T.L. Petersen

Observer Staff Writer

Law enforcement is similar in many ways around the world, Union County Sheriff Steve Oliver discovered.

Cops are competitive. They want to see who can run fastest, do the most sit-ups, get the best grades.

And cops are generous, sharing their homes, the lessons theyve learned, problems and solutions.

But cops work under very different mandates in different parts of the world. Back at his office earlier in December after

2 1/2 months at the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Va., Oliver had that, too, clearly demonstrated to him.

A fellow classmate he describes as a nice guy works as a government sniper in a Central American country. The man is sent after people in the jungle.

Wildlife police in Kenya face both political rebels and wildlife poachers. The rule, their representative at the Academy said, was that they cant shoot first when weapons-fire gets started.

They dont play by the same rules, Oliver said.

Another officer, from South Africa, keeps a supply of illustrated pamphlets handy to those encountering the police. The pamphlets describe the countrys 1996 Constitution.

Near the beginning, the pamphlets clearly explain to people that, You have the right to life.

The National Academy, an advanced training course for law enforcement managers from the local, national and international level, aims mainly at law enforcement issues in the United States. Olivers class, though, included 30 international students.

While his fellow officers did provide diverse stories and intriguing examples, most of Olivers time at the academy was focused on intense studies and improving his physical conditioning, a key component of the training course.

Oliver, at 59 the oldest academy attendee in the last session, was worried about meeting the physical requirements. But he made it, and finished with improved conditioning. An added point of pride was finishing the more than nine-mile FBI outdoor training course, involving running, crawling under wire, climbing and rappelling.

Oliver said he would have been allowed to complete a shorter six-mile course, but he decided to go the longer route. And he finished.

I really, really felt good about running the 9.4-mile course, he said, showing, with pride, the painted yellow brick symbolizing his completion of the yellow brick road. It is the second yellow brick for Union County, since La Grande Police Lt. Derick Reddington, also an academy graduate, keeps his close by.

The physical fitness component of the academy, though, was only a small part of Olivers days.

Hed had warnings about the physical training. But no one had been able to prepare him for the rigors of the college-like courses he took daily.

There were term papers to write, exams, research projects and plenty of homework in courses such as Legal Issues for Law Enforcement Managers, Critical Investigation Response, Interviewing and Interrogation and Microcomputers.

Oliver took six classes and finished with four As and two Bs.

The accomplishment is worth noting, he thinks, since computers are not part of his normal working environment.

Now, he says, he realizes he needs to keep learning more about and working with computers, since its the fastest-growing area of crime, with such offenses as identity theft growing more common.

Oliver is taking information he gained at the academy and sharing it with his deputies and staff at departmental meeting.

This was way beyond anything Ive ever done, he said. Way beyond. These are the experts.

The academy schedule meant that Oliver entered the program just weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks. He found the FBI headquarters under tight security, and getting into the buildings meant passing under the sights of machine-gun toting Marines.

During the tours provided by the academy, Oliver wasnt able to enter the White House. But he did see the famous Gettysburg battlefield and over Thanksgiving went to Lexington, S.C., with a classmate and had a chance to ride along on patrol.

Union Countys troubles with jail space, funding, and drugs arent unique, Oliver found.

The South Carolina jails are also overcrowded, and people are released based on a matrix-type system. Methamphetamine isnt the leading drug problem there, crack is. And funds for jail operations are in short supply.

Oliver was even riding along when a local South Carolina turkey-shoot took place. Inside a bar. One man was shot in the altercation.

Oliver is telling the story to his D.A.R.E. students, bringing home the message that guns and alcohol dont mix.

Oliver finished the FBI course the first week in December and came home with stories, knowledge, and a new sense of purpose for the next three years of his term.

And the experience cost Union County less than $400, he said, since once accepted for the course, the FBI provides the instructors, the dorms and whatever else is needed.

Oliver had only one

complaint.

I dont like to fly anyway, he said. By the time he got to the East Coast, then rode a van to Quantico, I was sick and threw up all over the van.

Still, thats a small price to pay for what was overall an enriching experience.