Photo: Lori Van Buren
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COLONIE – Instructors at an Albany County corrections academy provided 21 jail officers from around the region with the questions and answers to a state-required exam during a training session last week.
The correction officers enrolled in the course were from Rensselaer, Schoharie and Schenectady counties. Two of the officers were confronted by instructors after they allegedly were caught writing down the exam answers that were being provided to the group before the test was administered.
The two officers were directed to leave the academy, Albany County officials said. One of them, a Schenectady County jail officer, was fired for his actions.
That 32-year-old recruit, who spoke with the Times Union on the condition that his name not be published, recalled that he and others in the most recent class hosted by the Albany County Sheriff’s Department were routinely given answers before taking tests during the basic training academy, a mandatory eight-week program.
The man has contacted both the state Division of Criminal Justice Services and the state Commission of Correction, and requested they investigate what took place.
He said he also conferred with an attorney and is considering taking legal action against the sheriff’s department for wrongful termination.
Rensselaer County Undersheriff Edward R. Bly said his agency did not terminate an officer who was accused of cheating, in part because the officer admitted what he had done. But Bly questioned the appropriateness of academy instructors pulling out the state exam and reading the questions and answers to the officers before the test is given.
“If I were a trainer and I took the test out of the envelope and went over the questions number-by-number, verbatim, and then gave them the answer, what kind of instructor am I and where is my integrity?” Bly said. “How did he get the answers? We already related back that this is a problem and we’re not going to condone that. He was caught in a situation he shouldn’t have been put in. Still, it’s wrong to write the answers down. … That is cheating.”
The Schenectady recruit recounted that on the morning of April 5, the academy instructors had the officers break into small study groups prior to taking the exam.
He said one of the four trainers in the room then stated, “We’re going to go over this. If anybody asks, this didn’t happen — wink, wink, nudge, nudge.”
He said another instructor opened up the envelope and went through all 85 questions in numerical order on the test for more than 30 minutes right before they took the exam.
Another correction officer taking the course reported seeing the two men writing down the answers, Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple said.
The Schenectady officer recalled a prior incident in which he was berated by two instructors in front of classmates for answering questions incorrectly. They directed him that day to write three “specials,” or statements for the three answers he didn’t correct after the instructors went over the results on the previous test.
“Any time you do something wrong they’re there — they don’t wait, they scream at you, they yell at you,” he said.
The officer said he realized he was in trouble when two of the instructors called him out of the room last week and began cursing him out for writing the answers down while on camera.
He was ordered to speak with Schenectady County Sheriff Dominic Dagostino. He said that Dagostino told him he could either resign or be fired after the officer explained to the sheriff that recruits were given the answers and that he didn’t bring a “cheat sheet” into the class.
He chose not to resign.
Albany County has hosted more than two dozen correctional officer training academies and graduated more than 500 sworn officers. The correction officers and supervisors receive mandated instruction on firearms, the use of physical and deadly physical force, how to handle emotionally disturbed inmates, first aid instruction and fire safety procedures, among other topics.
The mandatory tests, many of which must be completed within an officer’s first year of service, are typically graded by the director of the host agency, and the results are forwarded to DCJS. The training requirements are set by the state Municipal Police Training Council.
Janine Kava, a spokeswoman for DCJS, said the agency is reviewing the situation.
“We take any allegations of wrongdoing seriously and are committed to ensuring the integrity of the basic training required for police, peace and correction officers, both for their safety and the safety of the public they serve,” Kava said.
Dagostino confirmed Friday that their correction officer had been fired last Monday for writing down the answers in light pencil on the back of the test during a “pre-test review,” so he could later erase them.
“It’s an honor issue, he’s a probationary employee, we chose not to retain him,” Dagostino said of the employee, who was hired in September.
Dagostino said Albany County officials told him this is the first time they had ever caught someone cheating.
“We’re rather embarrassed and disappointed,” he said. “I would expect that (the instructors) would work very hard to review the material that’s going to be presented to them in test form so that these young men and woman are successful.”
Dagostino said they also use the Zone 5 Regional Law Enforcement Training Academy closer to home in Schenectady for required basic training.
There are also instructors from Schenectady who teach certain courses at the Albany academy, the sheriff added.
Apple said the Albany County department has removed one of their training instructors from the academy pending the outcome of an internal investigation.
“I want to sit down and see exactly what transpired,” Apple said. “Again, two people got caught cheating and they were removed from the class … and now they’re trying to question the integrity of the instructors.”
Apple said the instructors had claimed they went through the exam questions in random order, which the Schenectady officer disputes, and that they have done these type of reviews on a routine basis.