As a few young drivers sped around a Port Arthur parking lot in high-performance police cruisers, 84-year-old Ruel Riggs climbed behind the wheel Saturday, March 2, for his try on the track.
“I’m not gonna be settin’ any speed records,” the aging man said. “I just wanna drive it.”
At least 30 residents with the Citizens Police Academy gathered in the Memorial Stadium parking lot to test their skills in a closed-course driving class hosted by the Beaumont Police Department. Some took the hour-long training course before stepping behind the wheel and then drove conservatively. Other, more aggressive drivers pushed the limits of Beaumont’s police cruisers, maneuvering at break-neck speeds in the tight course. Regardless of skill in the high-octane drive, most enjoyed the sunny, cool Saturday under close supervision of driving instructors who teach police cadets the skills needed to fight Beaumont’s most dangerous criminals.
“The Citizens Police Academy gives our citizens a chance to see what our officers do and the training we do and how to be police officers,” said Det. Chuck Duchamp III, a driving instructor at Lamar Institute of Technology’s police academy. “It makes everybody else safer.”
Drivers of all ages got to step behind the wheel of a typical Beaumont police car to see what it’s like for themselves.
“I’ll say one thing: For a car this big, it sure handles well,” said 78-year-old Bob Henderson. “I’m not any great driver, but this really handles well. They’re set up for this.”
Each cruiser has a performance-grade carburetor; radiator and sway bars to improve handling; as well as no speed governor in the event police are involved in a high-speed chase.
In a few weeks, those attending the free 14-week class will take to the shooting range and receive training in hostage and live-shooter scenarios. Officer Doug Kibodeaux said the class is helping Beaumont residents understand the dangers involved in everyday police work.
“There’s never been a whole lot that would actually get the police department and the citizens they actually serve together so there can be some sort of understanding between the two,” Kibodeaux said. “This puts people in contact with police officers to educate people about what they do and why they do it. It kind of builds a bridge.”
Duchamp said Police Chief Jimmy Singletary deserves credit for making the program free of charge to residents across Southeast Texas.
“He really wants us to be out there available to the public so they’re able to come and talk to us. I enjoy being able to interact with the citizens because it lets them know that we’re normal people and this is our job,” he said. “We deal with citizens a lot of times who our only contact with them is the worst moment in their life. So it builds that relationship between us and the public.”
As the sound of screeching tires and redlining engines filled the cool, weekend air, some sat and watched, but most attendees couldn’t wait to climb behind the wheel.
“This is my first time to drive, so I’m not gonna do anything crazy,” said Paul Entrekin, whose Grand Prix Corvette sat a few feet away from the starting line. “Years ago I used to ride with local policeman. I’m afraid this police car is gonna be a lot different.”
The calm, collected older man and his white beard might have surprised the average driver as Entrekin maneuvered the powerful cruiser in and out of the designated cones, tires screeching and engine running at redline speeds. Coming into a turn at high speed, Entrekin narrowly missed at least one checkpoint.
“I got into it a little hot,” he said.
Once the short course was over, however, Entrekin was delighted.
“That was fun. I’ll let somebody else drive,” he said. “There are a lot of other people waiting.”
Driving instructor Sgt. Candice Cox said the short course is designed to teach drivers the basics of police maneuvers that can translate into every day driving.
“Anybody can use these techniques,” she said. “They can use the way we drive and how we teach them out here to avoid wrecks, to drive their cars better, and really just to manage anything they do a whole lot easier.”
After he entered the driver seat and readied his seatbelt, 84-year-old Ruel Riggs did his best to stay within the confines of the course. But the winding track proved too much for him. Occupants of the car chuckled lightly at the Citizen’s Police Academy’s oldest driver, but it was all in good fun.
“Yeah, that was fun!” Riggs said. “I missed a couple, didn’t I?”
Clay Thorp can be reached at (409) 832-1400, ext. 225, or by e-mail at clay [at] theexaminer [dot] com.