Music spills from the bar as Meghan Lohman walks in, hand hovering over her weapon. Two men are yelling. One throws a punch.
When the attacker sees her trooper uniform, he shouts, “The guy’s a pansy! You want some more?” He’s standing over a broken bottle and slurring his insults. The other man is clutching a blood-stained rag to his face.
“Sir, go outside,” Lohman shouts. She grabs the assailant’s bicep, but he drags her farther into the room. Her radio falls from its holster, knocking around at her ankles. The lanky 31-year-old isn’t muscling this guy into anything.
So she doesn’t. Lohman bear-hugs the man and, using her height and higher center of gravity, swings them both to the ground. Her knee lands neatly on his back.
Moments later, an instructor yells for the scenario to end. Lohman, a recruit trooper at the State Police Academy’s Basic School, has just finished another training exercise.
Even though she’s passed, the first thing her instructor says is “What do you think you could have done better?”
In the past 10 years, the academy has moved away from lecture halls and frequent quizzes in favor of reality-based scenarios. That shift in educational philosophy means recruits practice making life-or-death decisions, and mistakes, before they’re on the road interacting with the public.
“One of the biggest challenges is teaching them to be confident, but (also) teaching them to talk to people,” one academy training officer said. “If we’re good talkers and good listeners, we don’t have to use our hands quite so much.”
As the State Police marks its centennial — the state Legislature established the agency on April 11, 1917 — the academy is tasked with passing on the knowledge and values of a 100-year-old institution while also creating new ways for its members to respond to armed suspects, mental illness and an ongoing national debate on race and law enforcement.
Over the course of six months this winter and spring, Lohman and 191 other recruit troopers have been shaped in the image of this changing police force.
Forty-three years ago, Lohman wouldn’t have even been allowed to apply for the academy. Women weren’t admitted until 1974 and, in the past five years, have made up anywhere between 7 and 19 percent of the academy’s ranks.
By February, about two months into her training, Lohman is angling to become the second woman to graduate at the top of her class.
Being a woman in uniform “is not so much of an anomaly as it was at one time,” the Bethlehem High School graduate says, sitting ramrod straight with her hands clasped on the table. “And really, they treat you the same. You’re held to the same standards. You have to do the same things (because) you’re going to be somebody’s backup.”
Before the academy, Lohman was a paralegal. Her plan was to save money and apply for law school, but the longer she stayed at the job, the less appealing that goal became. At about the same time, she started dating a trooper and quickly became envious of how fulfilling his job was. Her boyfriend, a member of the Traffic Incident Management Unit, is highly skilled — to the point of passionate nerdiness — at clearing highways after massive crashes and enforcing commercial traffic laws.
Lohman isn’t sure yet what her specialty will be, but it’s the unknown that excites her.
“I don’t know if I’m going to be focusing on, let’s say, drug interdiction. Am I going to be good at that? Am I going to be good at getting into cars or having what they call ‘spidey senses’?” she says. “I feel like I could go any path.”
Lohman has four more months at the academy, and as many years on the road, before she’ll even be eligible for promotion. For now, she spends every waking moment studying.
“What I do on the weekends is sleep, eat and study. I mean, I study. I haven’t stopped studying since the last test,” she says, days before the fourth exam. For weeks, she’s skipped Sunday night dinner and dominoes with her family.
The pressure of a Lohman’s rigorous schedule shows in her body language. Whenever she’s is headed into an unknown — an exam or a scenario — you can bet she’s wringing her hands.
“I’m always doing that,” Lohman explains with a laugh. “One time an instructor asked me if I was praying.”
Curtis Rich is actually praying as he strides across a glowing second-floor breezeway.
The squat, gray-brick State Police Academy sits on the western edge of the Harriman State Office Campus in Albany. From the darkened, icy parking lot at 5:25 a.m., you can watch the recruits march single-file from their dormitories to the main building.
Like the other recruits, Rich greets his superiors with a “Ma’am, good morning, ma’am,” “Sir, good morning, sir,” and holds his omnipresent purple water bottle in his non-dominant hand.
“We’re teaching them to keep your shooting hand free,” Technical Sgt. Kristi Anguish explains with a wink. “There’s a method to our madness.”
Soon, the gymnasium is a cacophony of heavy breathing and moving bodies. Rich is sopping wet as he lunges forward into another sit-up squat — his movements mirrored by a sea of black gym shorts and gray T-shirts.
Rich glances periodically at his puckered forearm to make sure he isn’t bleeding. “I’m pushing myself through it,” he says. “I’ve got to.”
More than a year after he took the State Police entrance exam, Rich got a Batman tattoo on his right arm — even though he knew troopers aren’t allowed to have visible tattoos. When his acceptance letter arrived weeks later, his resolve to become a cop wavered.
“I was kind of comfortable in my life,” Rich recalls with a chuckle and shrug. He was 31, working as a state correction officer and raising four kids in Delmar. But his wife finally pushed him to accept the offer and pursue his dream job.
With a month left until the academy began, he had no choice but skin graft surgery to hide the tattoo.
“It hurt,” he says. If the State Police had asked him to remove his Superman shoulder tattoo, Rich says, “I probably wouldn’t have taken the job.”
His fascination with superheroes fueled his boyhood dream of becoming a state trooper. “I look at the world basically good versus evil,” Rich says.
As a black youth growing up in Harlem’s St. Nicholas projects, he was surrounded by “drugs, violence — you name it, it was there,” Rich says. His strict mother, an immigrant from Trinidad, walked him to school every day and accompanied him to every party, even in high school.
“I don’t think there are a lot of people from where I’m from that actually became a state trooper,” Rich said.
Almost 15 percent of his class — 28 out of 192 — are people of color. The group includes blacks, Hispanics and Pacific Islanders. That is the highest percentage of minorities for a State Police recruit class in five years. In one class during that time, only 6 percent of recruits were minorities.
Rich’s workout partner, Joseph Turoski, is more representative of the State Police’s current racial and gender demographics. He is white, male and prone to using copspeak (what civilians would call two people arguing, he might refer to as “a dispute between parties”).
Turoski was a Guilderland police officer for four and a half years before entering the academy. He cherishes the day when he was directing traffic and a man pulled over to thank Turoski for an arrest months earlier — a drunken-driving charge that led the man to get sober, reconcile with his wife and move back in with his children.
“That’s why you should always work all 12 hours,” Turoski says. “You should be working to try to help somebody.”
The 29-year-old from Voorheesville signed up for the State Police in hopes of upward mobility and a new challenge.
“It’s almost like you have different careers within a career,” Turoski says. That means the academy, with its myriad challenges, is just the first hurdle. “Not only are you studying for the test but you’re studying for your career,” he said.
About 10 percent of recruits drop out or are asked to leave the academy every session, says Sgt. Anguish, who is in charge of academic curriculum. This year, 18 recruits, or 9 percent of the class, won’t graduate.
“It’s a shock, the paramilitary lifestyle,” Anguish says. “They’re so young. A lot of them haven’t been held accountable. A lot of them are coming out of college; a lot of times this is their first job.”
Academy candidates, who can be as young as 21, must pass written and physical testing, a background check and an interview. Candidates also need to finish at least 60 college credits — or 30, if they have prior military or law enforcement experience — before they apply.
Recruits undergo more than six months of training at the residential academy. Their time is highly scheduled: From 5 a.m. to 11 p.m., they attend academic lectures, learn how to drive emergency vehicles, memorize state law, practice shooting firearms, study for exams and complete grueling physical and defensive training.
All the while, they maintain military bearing: lining up at attention before every meal, folding their bedsheets at a 45-degree angle, and maintaining composure even as instructors shout at them or make jokes.
Asked if he ever thinks about quitting, Rich laughs: “Probably every day.”
“Every day you feel like, ‘I could always go back to my old job.’ You just push through it and realize why you’re here,” he says. “Probably a thousand people wanted to take that spot — you don’t just give that up.”
He brightens. “I have my wife’s face back here,” he says, hovering a hand over his right shoulder to signal not a tattoo but a mental image of his wife. She’ll tell him, “Just keep going.”
“And then … every sit-up, going up, you see a kid’s face,” Rich says, putting a palm right in front of his nose. He’s laughing, but it isn’t really a joke.
The radio crackles, the dispatcher speaks: A tenant, loud and drunk, has locked himself inside a utility closet and the apartment manager wants him out.
Two recruits arrive to find Jimmy, sitting alone on a ratty brown couch in a dark closet with the door slightly ajar. He’s singing along to “867-5309” by Tommy Tutone and swigging a 40-ounce beer.
“I’ll probably throw an empty beer can at them, just to shake them a little bit as they come in the door,” the role player said before the recruits arrived. “They’re not going to see me totally. Hopefully they’re going to turn on the lights, so they can see what they’re dealing with.”
Jimmy, played by Trooper Arno Lippassaar, is heavy-set and middle-aged, wearing a gray shirt that reads I’m Not Arguing. I’m Just Explaining Why I’m Right.
“I’m going to make hints that I’m pretty sad and I need to be left alone,” Lippassaar says. “They’re going to hopefully ask me a lot of questions to get the story out ... because in real life no one comes out and straight tells you that they want to kill themselves.”
A week of training is devoted to helping recruits learn to deal with people who are in crisis due to either acute or long-term mental health issues. The training is designed by the state Office of Mental Health and delivered by both troopers and OMH employees.
At the end of the week, recruits run through four scenarios: a “suspicious” man in a closet experiencing a hidden mental health crisis; a woman who has schizophrenia and is panicking inside a convenience store; a veteran who has a traumatic brain injury and is found lost outside a doctor’s office; and an art teacher pressing a gun to her head and threatening suicide.
Lippassaar, who graduated from the academy in 1994, says his experience as a recruit is “no comparison” to today’s curriculum.
“We were trained mostly (through) lecture and testing,” he says. “We saw very little as far as scenarios.”
As a result, Lippassaar says he made a lot of mistakes during his first few years out on the road — often forgetting sections of the penal code, or offending a witness with his questions.
But one time “it did go bad.”
“I misjudged a person,” Lippassaar says. “That is always a mistake that can get you hurt.” He was talking to a suicidal woman inside her home, trying to convince her to go to the hospital, when he stepped too close. Out of nowhere, she slugged him.
“Knocked me back a little bit, caught me off-guard and we ended up fighting,” he says.
Now, when Lippassaar plays “Jimmy in the closet” and a recruit gets too close, he’ll tackle them. Or, if they don’t realize he’s dangerously depressed and decide to leave him alone in his apartment, he’ll pull a gun from his drawer and simulate suicide.
“When they put themselves in a bad position, I need to show them it was bad. Not just explain it to them, but show them,” Lippassaar explains.
But if they ask him the right questions, he’ll tell them everything they need to know.
“We’re just constantly working with them on their demeanor,” he says. “Not just can they make an arrest, or can they handcuff, or can they fight, or can they shoot? But can they talk to people, can they get the story, can they build a rapport?”
On one balmy March afternoon, Lohman leaves the academy’s mock police station and stands in the hallway, waiting for her next assignment.
Her instructor, Trooper Timothy Kirch, uses the time to review when and how troopers can use physical or deadly force against civilians, who are played by other instructors during scenarios.
“If you decide to go hands-on, you can go hands-on,” he tells her. “No punches, kicks, strikes. Do not slam anybody against the wall, the desk or the floor.” Next, Kirch glances at the weapons hanging from Lohman’s belt, counting each one off on his fingers.
Her pepper spray canister is empty, but the baton is real. If a recruit decides to use either during a role play, they shout “Pepper” or “Baton,” and an instructor tells them if it’s effective.
“The role player is going to listen to what I say,” Kirch says. “He’s going to react accordingly. And you’re going to react to what the role player does.”
The yellow handgun on Lohman’s hip won’t shoot. Instead it makes noises — going “pow” when fired and “zing-zing-zing” when a finger dawdles on the trigger. Recruits are taught to touch the trigger only after they’ve made the decision to shoot.
“I will hear when the gun goes off,” Kirch says. “And that could be a potential teaching point.”
Lohman’s stun gun is the real deal: charged and loaded with barbs. Role players wear full body padding to dull the shock during Taser scenarios.
“If you decide to use the Taser: If it’s out it’s … ”
“On,” Lohman answers. Kirch nods.
“OK, your scenario,” he says. “Susie Smith and Bob Smith got in a verbal domestic. She left the residence. She does not want to come back. When she left the residence, he had a knife. The knife was not used during the verbal domestic or threatened during the verbal domestic. Any questions?”
“Sir, no, sir,” Lohman replies, hands clasped above her navel. After a brief sidebar, she and her partner walk toward a dorm room, where a “Scenario in Progress” sign is hung on the door.
Inside, ‘‘Bob Smith’’ — played by an instructor suited up in protective gear — is chopping vegetables with a red kitchen knife. As soon as Lohman sees him, she shouts, “Knife, knife!” and pulls out her stun gun. Her partner’s hand wavers over his handgun before dropping empty to his side.
Lohman tells Smith to drop the knife, then tells him to drop it on the floor. He looks confused, asking where to put the blade as he walks towards the troopers. With each command, Lohman’s voice gets louder and more stern.
“DROP THE KNIFE ON THE FLOOR,” she finally bellows.
“OK, OK,” Smith says as he drops it at his feet. He’s about 10 feet away from Lohman. “I don’t want to get in any trouble, so you guys are in charge. I’m just trying to make lunch. You want to tell me what’s going on?”
Lohman, still poised with the Taser, asks, “Sir, what’s going on today? Did you have an issue with ... uh, is your name Bob?”
“Yeah, I’m Bob. Um ...”
“Did you have an issue with your wife Susie?”
“Yeah, we did. Yup. It started out we were just talking and next thing I know we’re arguing and things got a little heated, you know? But nothing happened. I didn’t hit her. I don’t have any weapons on me.”
“Okay, alright. Just stay still for me, sir,” Lohman says, her voice calmer but the Taser still trained on the man’s chest.
“I-I didn’t hit her,” he says. “I didn’t threaten her. She, uh, she decided she wanted to go to her mom’s and kind of cool off over there. Are we, are we done here?”
Both recruits say no in unison and Lohman adds, “No sir, we’re not done. We’re going to have to — ”
“Well I don’t know what else I can do for you guys. This is really getting annoying, so —” Smith bends at the waist and both recruits tell him to step away from the knife.
“This is my house. Listen —,” he says before Lohman interjects.
“I understand this is your house, sir, but this is for your safety and our safety.”
“Oh, for your safety,” he scoffs. “Well, you guys are getting really annoying and I’m going to need you to leave or I’m going to punch you in the face.”
He runs at Lohman with a raised fist. She pulls the trigger on the Taser. As the probes hit the instructor’s suit, he falls to the ground.
Kirch shouts, “Effective. Effective.”
In de-brief, Lohman says the stun gun was, “in the moment, the best option.”
“It actually reduces injury to the suspect and the officers,” she explains. Recruits are taught that hand-to-hand fights are more physically and mentally traumatic for civilians than being stunned, “because your recovery from the Taser is so quick,” she says.
But Lohman knows it’s not without risk. If police stun someone too many times, their heart can stop. At least three men have died in the region since 2011 after being shocked with Tasers during confrontations with police.
“The Taser isn’t deadly physical force, but in some circumstances it is,” Lohman says.
If she’d tried to wrestle the man into handcuffs, the knife would have been within his reach. “You’ve got a tight environment in there: Someone could bash their head off a bed or a wall and then you still have that knife in play,” she says.
But could she have done anything differently, before the situation escalated?
“I should have given him more direct verbal commands to throw the knife under the bed or throw it as far away from you as you can but without throwing it (at me),” she says.
“It just goes to show you there is no perfect answer to each one of these situations.”
It’s April. Graduation is three weeks away and the recruits’ final exams have just been scored. Curtis Rich sits in class, thinking about how a failing grade could still boot him from the academy.
“I’ve never studied that hard in my life — ever, not even in college,” he recalls. “This was it. This was make-or-break.”
Finally, the instructor pauses his lecture and gives the recruits a short recess. They silently leave the room and march single-file along the right side of the corridor towards their dorms.
Posted on the wall is a list, which they all lean in to examine. Rich has scored a 90 percent. In his mind, he shouts “Yes!” and pumps his fist.
But in the hallway surrounded by his fellow recruits, Rich doesn’t say or do any of those things. None of them do. Instead, they nod at each other with tight smiles and march back to class.
“It’s been this way for a hundred years,” Rich explains later with a hearty laugh and a shake of the head. “I can’t stop it now, right?”
Those traditions are on full display three weeks later, when the academy’s 205th class graduates in Albany. Their class motto, chanted during the ceremony, winks at the agency’s centennial: “One-hundred years we thrive, we are the two-oh-five.”
Lohman graduates at the top of her class with a 98.1 percent academic average. Turoski, voted class representative by his fellow recruits, delivers a speech at graduation. He’ll patrol the Hudson River valley for Troop F. Rich will guard bridges, tunnels and landmarks for Troop NYC.
Lohman’s top finish earns her the first choice for placement. She picks Troop G, which serves the Capital Region.
When they walk out of the convention center, they are troopers.
For six months, instructors have tried to hammer home that every single call brings the unexpected: A trooper can leave a fender-bender and be dispatched to a murder in progress.
As a result, a trooper’s first real call is the one that brings the most anxiety. One investigator told the class his first dispatch was for 30 dead geese in the road. “It’s like, ‘What do I do with this? We didn’t get taught this one!’” Lohman recalls thinking.
It’s a thought most new troopers are mulling over two days after graduation, as they set off for 10 weeks of field training.
“I’m pretty nervous but I’m looking forward to it,” Turoski says. “Learning a whole new patrol area is always nerve-racking, just from past experience: getting that call and you’re like, ‘Oh … where is that? How do I get there?’ And doing that quickly and safely.”
At her barracks in Brunswick, Lohman’s first call is for a possible bank robbery. Someone has pressed the panic button inside a Hoosick Street bank, but dispatchers have no other information.
Her stomach drops. As Lohman speeds to the scene, she tries to think of everything she can prepare for — and the infinite number of things she can’t.