Demetrius Fortson considered becoming a police officer after he graduated from high school. Instead, he joined the Marine Corps and then worked for years as a correctional officer. Now, at age 40, Fortson is set to join the Howard County Police Department after graduating from the police academy as the oldest recruit in his class.
Fortson, a member of the 30th class to graduate from the academy, said the training was physically and psychologically demanding but that being around the other recruits, many of whom were much younger, was "motivating, and it kept [me] young in spirit."
On Wednesday night, the 16 new officers gathered at Marriott's Ridge High School in Marriottsville with friends and family members to celebrate their graduation from the Howard County Police Academy.
Officer Joshua Mouton, the class speaker, reminisced about the challenges the class faced during training but said that "every single member of academy 30 will be an asset" to the police department.
Howard County Police Chief William J. McMahon reminded the graduates of the sacrifices made by officers such as Cpl. Scott Wheeler, who was killed in June while trying to flag down a car for speeding.
"You have a lot of challenges ahead of you, but it's not all doom and gloom," McMahon said.
Fourteen of the officers, including Fortson and Mouton, will serve in Howard County. The other two will return to Laurel, which sent its recruits to train in Howard County because the city does not have its own academy, county police spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn said.
After high school, Fortson joined the Marines and then was a correctional officer in the state Division of Correction for 16 years. He spent six months working in the Howard County Detention Center before going to the police academy in January.
Fortson said this was his third opportunity to become a police officer. He considered pursuing police work after high school. Before he left the service, he tried to join the Baltimore County Police Department, but it ended up hiring officers from other departments, Fortson said.
"My motivation for becoming a police officer was my need to help people, and I'm very comfortable with the military-style environment," he said.
While Fortson was a corrections officer, he began preparing for police training by adopting a "rigorous workout schedule," losing 100 pounds in a year, he said. During the 29-week training program, Fortson said, he lost an additional 13 pounds.
Fortson estimated that the average age of his classmates was 26. A major difference he noticed between himself and his younger classmates was in their understanding of technology. "It's amazing to see how comfortable they were in that realm," he said.
The training made him more comfortable with using computers, Fortson said.
Aside from physical and weapons training, the recruits studied defensive tactics, state policies and laws and cultural awareness. They also played roles for situations they might encounter as police officers.
"One of the biggest challenges for me was ... the defensive tactics, because you're manipulating the joints in your body. Afterward, I'd be so sore," Fortson said. He also said he found the "psychological aspect" of the training tough because it was "in your face, and we have to do everything as a team and as a class."
Fortson was "kind of intimidated at first" by the training program, which was held five days a week, for about nine hours a day. He said he had to re-evaluate his decision to become a police officer after each week because the training became progressively more difficult.
"My conclusion was that if I felt I wasn't doing a critical skill correctly and couldn't teach myself how to do it, that would have been my cue to step out," he said.
Instead of dropping out, he gained a better understanding of his own abilities.
"Because there's so much we have to know, I was a little leery of being able to perform at that level, but I've learned that I can multitask, and I've learned that physically, even when I'm dead tired, I can push myself and keep going," he said.
Fortson, who said three recruits dropped out of his class during training, also realized that police work "is not for everyone, because you can't be good in one field and not so good in another. You have to be good at all the fields because your life is on the line."
The new police officers will undergo 14 weeks of field training under close supervision, starting Aug. 20, Fortson said. After the field training, the officers will work on patrol duty until their 18-month probation period, which includes the field training, is over.
Fortson, who lives in West Friendship with his wife and two young daughters, said he hopes to stay in the department for 20 years. He wants to spend about 10 years as a patrol officer and then return to the academy to help train other recruits.
In addition to Fortson and Mouton, the new additions to the Howard County Police Department are: Christopher Alexander, Matthew Bauer, Phillip Champagne, Christopher Cromwell, Stephen Hennessey, Kristopher Knutson, Roberto Lopez, Darshan Luckey, Ryan McCrone, James Tippett, Laura Wilson and Adam Wood.
McCrone won the Firearms Proficiency Award, the Leadership Award and the Overall Achievement Award. Wilson tied with Jennifer Sarver of the Laurel Police Department for the Physical Fitness Award on the women's side. On the men's side, the award was given to Tippett, who also tied Wood for the Academic Achievement Award.