SHERIDAN — To be an effective law enforcement officer, you must know your surroundings. What is the quickest way across town? On what stretch of road are people more likely to speed? Which are the more rowdy bars?
Building that level of comfort takes time. For officers who grew up in Sheridan County, the familiarity already exists. Other officers get to know the area by attending Sheridan College, which provides a path for individuals seeking to serve in law enforcement.
In fact, four of the five Sheridan College campus police officers attended the school. Of the 26 officers at the Sheridan Police Department, six went to the college. Figures for the Sheridan County Sheriff’s Office were not available.
Steve Matheson is one of those local officers. He graduated from Sheridan High School in 1980 with the intention of studying business. Then a friend told him about a new option at Sheridan College that began the previous year: the police science program.
Matheson was intrigued, and enrolled in the program that fall. He was one of seven graduates in 1982, and has worked in law enforcement for 35 years, the past four as the Sheridan County courthouse deputy.
The police science program evolved over the years into a criminal justice program. It is now part of the college’s social sciences department, and the majority of students are preparing to transfer to a four-year institution upon graduation, program director Jonni Joyce said.
“We want our graduates to have skills beyond just being a police officer,” Joyce said. “Critical thinking, the ability to communicate effectively in writing and also verbally. These become important in a two-year degree, which is different than a technical aspect of what you do as a law enforcement officer.”
One of the main changes over the program’s 38-year history is the advancement in police technology. The basics are still the same, Joyce said, but now there are more tools to be used, including an interactive firearm simulator.
Lt. Emily Heizer has been serving the community for almost 20 years. Heizer oversees operations at the Sheridan County Detention Center, ensuring that the safety and security of the jail and county employees are maintained.
Unlike Matheson, Heizer did not have a typical two-year education at Sheridan College. Rather, she attended the criminal justice program in spurts from 1999-2007.
After graduating from Sheridan High School, Heizer joined the National Guard in 1998. She spent 10 years total in the National Guard, and was deployed to Iraq in 2005 for about one year.
Heizer joined the SCSO in 2000, starting out as a detention officer. She eventually worked her way up to lieutenant, which she has been for about nine years.
Like Matheson and Heizer, Sheriff’s Deputy Clint Salyards graduated from Sheridan High School. He then studied psychology at Sheridan College from 2014-16, and is currently taking classes online through the University of Wyoming. He will graduate with a social sciences degree next May.
He joined the SCSO in 2000, initially working in the jail.
“You learn probably the negative side of everything a little bit more than you do on the street,” he said of the experience.
Salyards didn’t study criminal justice; not every officer does, but program enrollment has been steady for the past few years, Joyce said. She noted that there are 38 students currently majoring in criminal justice at Sheridan College, which is about 65 percent capacity.
Joyce teaches the majority of classes, while campus police Chief Jason Vela is an adjunct firearms instructor. Joyce didn’t provide an exact program graduation rate, but said it is more than 50 percent, significantly higher than the overall college rate.
Vela said a post-secondary education can be an advantage for law enforcement officers.
“When you do get someone with an associate degree or a bachelor’s degree, you’re looking at those people as someone who’s going to be a future leader of the department,” Vela said.
The criminal justice program is in the midst of more changes. Joyce said there are too many options within the program, and recommended that the college streamline courses into three degree options: a transferable Associate of Arts, a transferable Associate of Science and an Associate of Applied Science degree in law enforcement.
The changes are intended to help students in similar positions to campus police officer Brayden Dempsey, who recently graduated from the college.
“I kind of got tossed around all over the place,” Dempsey said. “They told me to get an A.A. first, then they told me to get an A.A.S.”
Dempsey said he loved the criminal investigation classes offered by the college, but when he enrolled at Chadron State College to get his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, he had to retake a few classes because the credits from Sheridan didn’t transfer.
When the courses are streamlined, it will “make sure that what happened to (Dempsey) doesn’t happen again,” Joyce said.
With these tweaks to the program, college officials said there will ideally be more graduates who follow the path of the officers who attended Sheridan College and now work in the area.
“We want to make sure that we are providing the education that the police department and the Sheriff’s Office here needs, in order for them to be able to hire our graduates,” Joyce said.