Alison Smith did her best to entertain her two young daughters Tuesday in the corner of downtown Olympia’s Starbucks, while keeping a constant eye on her cellphone.
A tax-return check gave the family from Flagstaff, Ariz., the funds to make the 23-hour drive to Olympia so Alison’s husband, 24-year-old Cameron Smith, could put his mental and physical grit to the test by applying for the Washington State Patrol.
The State Patrol will have 321 troopers eligible to retire by the end of 2017, leaving many boots to fill with new recruits. The goal is to hire 67 cadets for a class in mid-July.
Applicants’ first major hurdle is Phase One testing, like the one held in Olympia Feb. 9, involving physical and written tests. Each recruit had to successfully complete allotted situps and pushups and a 1.5-mile run within required times in order to take the written exam.
Smith passed both and traded the workout clothing for a suit and tie for Phase Two’s interview before a panel of three troopers Tuesday.
The packed schedule seemed to double the emotional toll for Smith’s family, who were doing the best with what was left of their waning patience.
“Wait wait wait,” Alison said to 7-month-old Addi at the coffee shop Tuesday. “I think waiting and not knowing what is going on is almost harder than him actually doing it. It’s so anxious and exciting.”
Her cellphone lit up. It was a text from Cameron.
“It says ‘I have good news and what I can see as bad news,’” Alison said. “Gah! This is killing me.”
Anxiety is understandable: Only 2.5 percent of those who apply to become a Washington State Patrol trooper are issued a badge, according to Trooper Guy Gill, spokesman and District One recruiter.
“We would rather run short than have subpar people working for this agency, period,” Gill said.
WEEDING OUT RECRUITS
A few men in sweats jogged up and down the street next to the General Administration Building before sunrise the day of testing to keep their muscles warm and cut the 28-degree morning chill.
Another was sitting in his car parked along Columbia Avenue, the overhead light on so he could do some last minute studying.
It would be at least another 20 minutes until anyone was allowed inside to take the first step toward what each hoped would become a new career.
As 7:30 a.m. drew near, the line extended down the stairway and along the sidewalk. Most of the men and women were donning athletic gear, while a handful wore suits and ties and carried briefcases.
A man wearing the dress blues that each person in line hoped to wear someday walked out the front door, shouting good morning to the crowd.
“Get to know yourselves,” the trooper said. “I want you to line up in alphabetical order.”
More than 150 applicants signed up for Saturday’s test. Only 91 showed up. More than half would be cut before the end of the day.
First cuts came during the weigh-in. Candidates have to meet specific height and weight requirements in order to move on. For example, a 6-foot tall man between the ages of 21 and 29 can weigh a maximum of 204 pounds. A woman in the same age range standing 5-feet, 7-inches tall can weigh no more than 165 pounds.
The only way around the requirement is by body fat percentage. Men must have 20 percent or less body fat and women 26 percent or less.
The candidates were directed to a room filled with desks and chairs on the main floor of the General Administration Building for an introduction. It was standing room only, but not for long.
“Not everyone is going to be successful here today, and that’s OK,” Gill said to the group.
“How many have been here before?”
At least one-third of the room raised hands. One candidate, a man from Las Vegas, was back for a third attempt.
“We will work with you,” Gill said. “If you don’t get through, don’t get your heads down too much.”
Third time was the charm for that candidate. He passed the physical, written and oral boards, and is moving on to Phase 3.
The introduction gave the candidates an idea of what was going to happen during the day’s training, as well as what kind of career they were getting themselves into.
“Who knows what happened on Feb. 23, 2012?” asked Sgt. Troy Tomaras.
A candidate said it was the day Trooper Tony Radulescu was shot and killed in Kitsap County near Gorst.
“People are out there that would want to kill you,” Tomaras said. “It’s a lifestyle choice and you have to stay fit and be ready.”
That fact is why the State Patrol puts an emphasis on its physical test.
“It’s a competition if you miss it by one, you are done; excused,” Tomaras said. “If you miss the pushups by one, the situps — the run by one second, you are done.”
The physical test was the end of the road for 25 candidates, but not for 30-year-old Leah Mixon of Tacoma.
The single mother of two blew by her required 11 pushup minimum, finishing strong at a pace of one pushup per second.
She slammed her fists on the ground after finishing 60 seconds of situps, missing her personal goal of 40. She only needed 25 to pass, but managed to complete 38.
Mixon finished the run fourth out of all the candidates.
Not everyone was successful at the physical test, including 20-year-old Michael Anthony Jones of Puyallup.
While Jones was able to beat the minimum requirements on the pushups and situps, he was about 30 seconds too slow on the run around Capitol Lake.
The failure didn’t curb his spirit.
“I thought it was great and a good experience,” Jones said. “I just need to work harder.”
Jones watched his older sister, 26-year-old Shaneka Phillips, graduate from the State Patrol academy in the Capitol Rotunda in December, and hoped to follow her example.
Jones planned to test again this weekend.
While many trained specifically for the physical test, Mixon didn’t have to. The gym has been the East Coast native’s escape since her divorce from a Joint Base Lewis McChord soldier.
“I just have to be tough — that’s me,” Mixon said. “I have no help, two children and an ex that is deployed. The gym has been my outlet, my home away from home.”
Mixon didn’t let the success of the physical test go to her head that Saturday. She knew she had the written exam still to do.
“I don’t want to psych myself out,” Mixon said. “I like to keep myself grounded.”
Those who passed the physical were sent back to the same place they were given the introduction, only this time, there were more seats to choose from.
“We lost a whole handful of people,” Tomaras said. “Hopefully we will see them back another day.”
The written test focuses on multiple-choice questions, as well as some memory retention.
“These tests are situational, multi-choice questions that are going to judge your common sense and how you react in certain situations,” Gill said. “You don’t need any law enforcement background to take these tests at all.”
Of the 62 applicants who took the written test, 22 failed.
“It was exhausting,” Mixon said. “When you are done, you can’t say if I did good because you don’t know what they are looking for. Apparently I did enough, I passed and am completely stoked.”
Those situational questions are revisited during Phase Two: oral boards.
Candidates interview in front of a panel of three troopers. They are asked various background questions, as well as situational questions.
“It gives us time to get to know the applicant a bit,” Gill said. “Then we go into situational questions.”
Mixon was put on edge when the troopers kept circling back to the same question regarding what to do in the case of a fellow cadet or trooper lying to his superior.
“I would not want to cause internal conflict with myself or external conflict with him,” Mixon said. “This is my co-worker and my partner. I would have confidence in my superior that they would make it right, and not put me under the bus.”
Mixon is scheduled for a polygraph test this month as part of the Phase Three background check. Phase Four is a medical and psychological test.
“We lose a lot of applicants during the polygraph and background phases,” Gill said. “Our advice to any applicant applying for us is to be 100 percent honest about everything, and that is what people usually get caught up on. They think they don’t want to tell us something that probably wouldn’t have kicked them out of the program, but if they are untruthful about it, that would do it.”
The candidates were warned about the polygraph several times during the Phase One testing.
“That one thing you don’t want us to know about, you need to tell us about it,” Tomaras said before issuing the written tests.
Anyone who fails the polygraph cannot re-apply to be a trooper, or apply with any law enforcement agency in Washington state.
Four applicants listened to his advice, came forward and were cut for previous drug use and past crimes.
Alison Smith packed up her daughters and started walking up Capitol Boulevard toward Cameron, who had just finished his oral board at the General Administration Building. She held Addi on her hip as Amaya, 4, trailed behind, holding her hand.
All Alison was left with was that cryptic message: “I have good news and what I can see as bad news.”
The family reunited on the street corner. Cameron couldn’t hide his mischievous smile as he hugged them all.
“I passed,” Cameron said.
Alison was elated, but confused.
“So what’s the bad news?” she asked.
“I have a polygraph at 7 a.m. in Seattle,” Cameron said.
Things got worse after that. Cameron was cut from the program before ever taking his polygraph after failing a preliminary background check.
Troopers go over the background packet with applicants prior to the polygraph test. In Cameron’s case, there were issues in his past that the State Patrol could not ignore.
“He passed every step with flying colors, but he made some choices in high school that don’t match up with who he is today or who they are looking for,” Alison said as the couple drove through Salt Lake City on Saturday. “We didn’t expect it, but we understand it and believe it’s what was supposed to happen.”
Despite the blow, the family has kept their heads high and are looking forward to what’s next.
“It was still a great experience for him,” Alison said. “To make it that far in such an elite program is a blessing.”
Chelsea Krotzer:360-754-5476 firstname.lastname@example.org