Carroll County Sheriff Jim DeWees congratulated 17 young men on Friday morning for what will be one of their proudest accomplishments, he said.
He knows because he still considers graduating from the police academy to be one of his greatest accomplishments.
"Celebrate this day," DeWees said to Carroll County Sheriff's Office Training Academy's first graduating class. "Go out and be great; serve your community with pride, integrity and respect."
Six months ago the recruits began the intensive entry-level training program in the former North Carroll High School building — a 28-week, 1,126-hour course of instruction for members of small- and medium-sized police agencies, according to the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
"We entered the academy as 17 individuals," said class President Adam Biemiller in his speech. "Sitting before you behind the stage are no longer 17 individuals but a team."
They will now be headed off to their respective departments: the Carroll County Sheriff's Office and police departments in Hampstead, Ocean City and Frostburg State University.
Headed to the CCSO are Biemiller and his fellow deputies: Logan Helwig, Neil Kleczek, Peter Knorr, Scott Morgan, Corey Moser, Nicholas Rhoads, Christopher Stonesifer, Dante Swinton Jr., Owen Turner and Joseph Zambito.
Officer Devin Herold graduated to the Hampstead Police Department; officers Alexander Hawkins, Kevin Herbert, Christian Rodden and Riley Scott graduated to the Ocean City Police Department; and officer Tyler Mazer graduated to the Frostburg State University Police Department.
Although officers came from all over Maryland and Pennsylvania, many have ties to Carroll — including keynote speaker Gordon Johnson, special agent in-charge of the FBI's Baltimore Field Office.
He said he remembered playing football against North Carroll High School while growing up in Frederick.
Helwig, one of the new officers, even graduated from the currently closed North Carroll High, saying it was great to be back in the building for police training.
"We put it to good use," he said. "It was definitely tough, but all 17 of us were there for a reason."
Others came from a little farther away.
Rodden is headed back to Ocean City after graduation, but brought a few close friends to the ceremony in Westminster on Friday.
"We've been best friends since sixth grade," said Rodden's best friend Jon Rothermel, 25. "He's talked about becoming a cop for a long time. We are happy he will be able to achieve his lifelong dream."
Swinton, from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, also had supporters in the crowd Friday morning.
His mother, Andrea Mendez, was beaming, but said other family and friends back home weren't as supportive of Swinton's choice to join law enforcement.
"Not everyone was happy for him, but I am," she said. "I'm proud of him. He can improve the image [of law enforcement] and make a difference."
In the class president's speech, Biemiller, too, mentioned loved ones distancing themselves from him when they learned he was pursuing a career in law enforcement. The day he got into the police academy was a great day, he said, but also a tough one.
"On the same day I lost a couple friends, I gained 16 brothers," he said. "No circumstances will keep me from helping you in need. And I know you'd all do the same for me."
And that's the kind of support these young men will need going into modern-day law enforcement, as Americans are divided on a national scale in their perspectives of police officers — most recently taking issue with a viral video from Carroll County of an Eldersburg deputy shooting a groundhog this week.
DeWees said in an interview Friday afternoon that social media plays a huge role in the public perception of law enforcement. He taught a class about it the day before graduation.
"One of the things that really is troublesome in a lot of ways is the effect social media has on law enforcement," DeWees said. "What that deputy did — [killing a groundhog that posed a potential threat to people] — is something I've done numerous times over the course of my career. It just happened to be on video."
He said if officers are acting in accordance with laws and how they have been taught, he will support them 100 percent. The last thing he wants to see, DeWees said, is an officer ignore a potential danger because of a camera.
"What the deputy did was right," he said, "and it's easy to judge us on something you see in a short video, when you don't see what happens before, and then what happens after.
"Ultimately what the deputies and new officers need to understand is that ... when [a video of] an officer doing something is on social media, it goes like a wildfire in the Midwest," the sheriff said. "And it's troublesome and it's awful to think people believe that we would stop and show up and just shoot a groundhog for no reason."
The Carroll County Sheriff's Office is currently seeking recruits for the second training class this fall since the first class has now graduated. Application information can be found at the CCSO website.