Sauk Valley Community College is training hub for law enforcement

SVCC Police Academy director Jason LaMendola addresses the grads and guests Friday, April 14, 2023 during the first graduation ceremony for the new academy.

DIXON – The police academy at Sauk Valley Community College is the eighth academy in Illinois and the first in northern Illinois. It opened its doors on Aug. 8, 2022. The first class, made up of 21 recruits, graduated in January 2023.

“In talking with our local law enforcement and municipalities, we identified a dire need, which was to provide immediate access for training the local community police officers for the Sauk Valley and beyond,” Dave Hellmich, SVCC president, said during the January 2023 graduation ceremony.

“It was through the great support of our community, our college and our law enforcement partners that we were able to collaborate on this vision together.”

—  Jon Mandrell, vice president of SVCC’s Academics and Student Services

Those recruits went on to serve at 17 police departments across northern Illinois – some as far away as Boone County, South Beloit, Wilmington and Colona. Others stayed more local, taking law-enforcement positions in Lee, Whiteside, Ogle and DeKalb counties.

“It’s pretty widespread. We’re bringing people from all over the state to the Sauk Valley ... people are coming here, they’re eating at our restaurants, spending their money at the shops, and just really experiencing the area,” said Jason LaMendola, SVCC police academy director.

Since the first class of 21 graduates, there have been two classes with a growing number of recruits in attendance – the second class with 32 and the next with 34. The current class has 36 recruits.

Hellmich and LaMendola have both credited Jon Mandrell, vice president of SVCC’s Academics and Student Services, as a huge component in the academy’s creation. Mandrell, however, told a different story.

Back in 2009, Harry D. Ulferts, a retired Dixon Police Department officer and a law enforcement educator at SVCC and the Whiteside Area Career Center, convinced Mandrell to make a shift in his career from officer to educator.

Ulferts had a vision that Sauk could be a training hub. He advocated for expanding training opportunities and access to the local law enforcement workforce, Mandrell said.

Ulferts died in 2012, but his vision became a reality.

To become a police officer, individuals must first be hired by a department and are then sent off to an academy of the department’s choosing for their training. Before the police academy was established at SVCC, municipal police departments in Illinois had four options of police academies to send their recruits to.

All four of those academies were in eastern and southern Illinois. It was hard for the recruits who were attending these academies because of the drive times, LaMendola said.

On top of the geographical need, these academies were filling up quickly. For a while every single one of them had a waiting list, LaMendola said. Mandrell was one of many who recognized the issue and began advocating for SVCC to become a site for a new police academy.

“[It] started by attending [board] meetings and building a relationship with them,” Mandrell said.

The Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board is the state agency mandated to promote and maintain a high level of professional standards for law enforcement. All police academies must gain approval from the board to be created.

From there, the local government joined in, and it became a “large team effort,” as Mandrell described.

In 2022, a formal plan was drawn up and presented to the board. Several qualifications had to be met, such as having adequate space for housing and teaching, presenting an established curriculum and determining equipment needs.

The board gave them the green light.

“It was through the great support of our community, our college and our law enforcement partners that we were able to collaborate on this vision together,” Mandrell said.

Once the academy was approved, LaMendola was brought on as director. His career in law enforcement began at the Dixon PD in 1997. He covered a wide range of areas, including as a patrol sergeant, SWAT team leader, detective and department instructor. He also served as the school resource officer for nine years at Dixon High School.

He retired on Aug. 7, 2022, and started as director at the academy the next day.

“Out of my whole career, training and teaching was by far my favorite. It was just a natural fit for me,” LaMendola said.

He highlighted his experience teaching tactics on the SWAT team, driver’s education and certain classes in health as some of his favorites.

“The opportunity at the academy kind of came out of nowhere at the end of my career and I was very fortunate to be chosen for the position,” LaMendola said.

The academy is run by LaMendola, as director, and Rebecca Flynn, as assistant director. Together, they do everything from creating calendars and hiring instructors to coordinating the budget.

At some academies, they have classroom supervisors who answer any questions the recruits may have, whether it’s about what they learned in class or that their sink is broken in their apartment.

At the SVCC police academy, LaMendola and Flynn act as the classroom supervisors, which gives them direct access to the recruits and the recruits direct access to them. Since the academy is small right now, they try to stay close and in touch with all the recruits, LaMendola said.

The academy’s curriculum follows the Basic Law Enforcement Training guidelines laid out by the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board with an emphasis on community policing because of their location at SVCC. Recruits complete 640 hours of training, with adult learning as the central teaching philosophy.

Outside of the curriculum set by the standards board, the academy has some special training classes that are like electives. One of those is taser training.

LaMendola also teaches three classes at the academy and fills in for instructors if they can’t be there.

“There’s definitely room for the academy to grow, and I think it will. Right now, we’re just taking small steps in the right direction,” LaMendola said.

Although hiring in law enforcement is declining, the police academy at Sauk Valley Community College is at capacity with a growing waiting list, LaMendola said. The current class has 36 recruits with five on the waiting list.

“I think when that trend starts to turn around, we’re really going to start to expand,” LaMendola said.

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Payton Felix

Payton Felix

Payton Felix reports on local news in the Sauk Valley for the Shaw Local News Network. She received her Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Illinois at Chicago in May of 2023.