As far as command schools go, the National Public Safety Innovation Academy (NIA) at Polk State College’s Center for Public Safety has it all.
Polk State and the Polk County Sheriff’s Office launched NIA in September. The eight-week executive-level STEM-based academy for law enforcement and corrections staff seeking to take the next steps in their careers just completed its first cohort in November. The participants were impressed with several aspects of the program, including presenters, facilities, and the other participants.
“I really think this could be one of the leading courses in the nation,” said Lt. Fred Jones, a 25-year veteran of the Lake County Sheriff’s Office. “If this is going the direction I think it’s going, there’s no need to send your people anywhere else.”
Each of the eight weeks focuses on a different topic relevant for participants to take the next step in their careers. The courses include week-long curriculum on servant leadership, analytics, media relations, futuristics, and mental health.
“It’s the quality of classes that has caught my attention,” said Jones, a lieutenant since 2021 with the hopes of one day becoming a captain. “I consider myself a lifelong learner. This certainly lives up to the innovation portion of its name. The instructors are people who have been where I wanted to go.”
Sgt. John Bergen has spent his entire 17-year career in law enforcement with the Citrus County Sheriff’s Office and has been a sergeant since 2014. He hopes to move to up lieutenant and ultimately be a captain within the next three years.
“The instructors have been top notch,” he said. “I’ve been wildly impressed.”
Among the courses that stuck out to the participants were media relations, cybersecurity, and predictive analytics.
“We’ve had really good instructors,” said Capt. Preston Hollis, a 21-year veteran of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. “All the topics have been very relevant to our jobs as administrators.”
Bergen said the intelligence analysis portion touched on how to grow, build, hire, and promote within a unit. Jason Jones, a 25-year veteran with the Panama City Beach Police Department and captain since 2019, said the cybersecurity course led by Pete Cordero, a former Federal Bureau of Investigation cybersecurity executive and the founder of Hacking the Cyberthreat, challenged him the most.
“We’re living in a day and age where cyber threats are very real and must be taken very seriously,” Capt. Jones said. “The courses have all been phenomenal. They’ve been very informative.”
Steve Gregory, a journalist with more than four decades of experience, facilitated the course on media. Bergen noted that as supervisors move up the ranks, communicating with the media becomes a bigger part of the job.
“The media relations portion for me is a huge steppingstone,” he said. “Having that knowledge of media relations is going to be key. Every word is scrutinized. Steve gave us a tool kit for just about every scenario you can think of.”
The first cohort was primarily composed of participants from Florida, but as the program goes on, the intent is for it to draw from across the country. Those in the first cohort said one of the biggest benefits was the networking opportunity.
“This program has a lot of people who are at your rank and your experience level,” Capt. Jason Jones said. “We’ve all learned a lot from one another.”
A captain for more than three years and a supervisor since 2014, Hollis hopes to be promoted to major before his law enforcement career is over. He appreciates that the course is full of participants with similar goals.
“Any time you get thrown into a new environment, there’s nerves,” he said. “Being away from home has its own stresses but the networking has been one of the biggest benefits. It’s been enjoyable to meet people from other parts of the state and to get their perspective.”
Participants from the first cohort also raved about the facilities. The Polk State Center for Public Safety is a 101,450-square foot state-of-the-art facility in unincorporated Winter Haven.
“Polk State College is great,” Hollis said. “These are really nice facilities. I definitely think this is a keeper.”
The program’s participants stay in the family-friendly Cabana Cottages in Auburndale. The location was recognized as one of USA TODAY’s 10Best Readers’ Choice Awards for 2022.
“It’s a great location and the people have been nothing but awesome to us,” Capt. Jones added.
Cabana Cottages features two swimming pools, a gymnasium, and a business center. Hollis called it a “great stay.”
“Anything you need is taken care of,” Bergen said. “The grounds are spectacular – the pools, the food. It’s a great location and easy to get back and forth to class.”
The hospitality, some noted, has been one of the overlooked selling points.
“From the instructors to the staff at the resort, everyone here is awesome,” Fred Jones said. “Everything has been top notch.”