Chris Willard: Training the next generation of police officers and rangers

Chris Willard, Director of the Temple University Municipal Police Academy.

To say that Chris Willard wears many hats at Temple University is a bit of an understatement. It wouldn’t be too surprising if she began handing out postcards instead of business cards to fit her many roles in training members of law enforcement.

Assistant Director of both the Temple University Criminal Justice Training Programs and the Seasonal Law Enforcement Training Program and Training Coordinator for Temple’s Deputy Sheriffs Continuing Education Program, Willard recently added another important title — Director of the Temple University Municipal Police Academy.

“I turned to law enforcement as a career when I was in college. I was a health and physical education major at West Chester University when, with just one year left, I had an epiphany,” said Willard, who has been with Temple University since 2008. “I wanted to be a police officer. At the time I was a volunteer firefighter and I think that certainly attributed to my interest in protecting the public.”

Willard’s roles at Temple are clearly reflective of her own law enforcement career, which started in 1991 when she became a park ranger for Chester County Parks and Recreation.

“Law enforcement training for county rangers at the time was nonexistent. Rangers didn’t go to the police academy, there was no seasonal law enforcement training,” she said. “It was ‘Here’s your map, here’s your keys and gun — see you at the end of your shift. Ninety percent of the time, I worked alone. I did that for about five years and then transitioned to a supervisory ranger position.”

At that time, Willard put herself through the Delaware County Police Academy and was hired by the West Chester University Police Department. She then transferred to the Millersville University Police Department in 1997.

“After that, I worked for Allstate Insurance as an auto fraud investigator. That was my ill-fated attempt at working in the private sector — it just wasn’t for me,” she said. “I joined the Chester County Sheriff’s office. I started as a deputy sheriff and left as a corporal and head of the training division. When the opportunity to become part of Temple’s Criminal Justice Training Programs came along, I knew it was the right fit and I thought I certainly had the background to contribute to the training of future officers.”

Students in the Criminal Justice Training Programs have the 187 acres that comprise the Temple University Ambler Campus as their classroom, a perfect backdrop to provide hands-on training to police officers, sheriffs and future national park rangers.

CJTP has conducted professional training programs for a variety of criminal justice agencies and occupations since 1968. Today, more than 3,000 criminal justice professionals attend programs offered by CJTP each year including police officers, deputy sheriffs, state constables, legislative security officers, magisterial district court staff, school resource officers, park rangers and crime prevention specialists. Other activities include continuing education programs for agencies allied to the criminal justice system and the development of curricula including distance-learning and online classes.

CJTP also offers the Seasonal Law Enforcement Training Program (SLETP), which is a key component of ProRanger Philadelphia, a partnership between Temple University and the National Park Service to train park rangers.

“My emphasis is on professionalism and the discipline of the profession. We have official uniforms for our programs and that makes all the difference to the students — they are immersed in the experience, they wear the vest, they wear the duty belt,” Willard said. “They enter the frame of mind of a law enforcement officer. We get a great deal of positive feedback from the agencies that hire our cadets about their discipline and maturity.”

Willard said program instructors ensure that students are aware of “the awesome authority of enforcement that they have, which they must balance with their duty to the community.”

“We emphasize enforcement through education,” she said. “We want our students to appreciate and take pride in the profession they are entering. We want them to realize the great responsibility they are being charged with.”

The 22-week Temple University Municipal Police Academy’s more than 754-hour curriculum includes everything from criminal law and defensive tactics to emergency vehicle driving, firearms, and ethics and integrity training. Temple’s SLETP is an 18-week program that has been expanded to almost 700 hours of professional instruction designed to prepare and enable students to obtain employment with the National Park Service.

With the recent addition of park ranger cadets from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, three academies are being offered throughout the year for the first time in CJTP history. 

“I think one of the things that makes our academy unique is the high academic standards our cadets are held to. We have some of the best skills instructors in the state; some that are nationally recognized,” Willard said. “The program that we provide — the legal, personal, and professional skills that the cadets must learn — is exceptionally intricate and complex.”

As an institution of higher learning, Willard said there is also an important benefit to having the training programs in a college setting.

“For our faculty, staff and students, they see what the cadets are experiencing firsthand, what they are learning, what they have to do and the dedication they have to put into it to succeed,” she said. “I think it gives them a better understanding and appreciation for how hard they have to work and what they have to go through to become members of law enforcement.”