Critical mistakes in the field by a law enforcement officer could cost them or their colleagues their lives.

That’s one reason the Northeast Counterdrug Training Center (NCTC), which is based at Fort Indiantown Gap, is an important tool for field and classroom training of law enforcement officers.

The facility also offers drug interdiction and various training programs that benefit the law enforcement community.

“It’s invaluable for us,” said Sgt. Tony Clements, who is a training officer with the Derry Township Police Department. “We come out every year to train, and our crisis response team comes out all the time. They use this facility quite a bit.”

Think of the NCTC’s facilities and its classrooms as a one-stop shop for cop training. 

During field training, nearly any scenario a law enforcement officer may encounter while on duty can be simulated at the center. 

“It’s hard for us to try and find an abandoned building (in Hershey) that we can shoot SIMs (simulations) in. A lot of times our scenarios will be defensive tactics where we’re trying to take someone into custody,” said Clements. “They also do outside vehicle stops. They (The Pennsylvania National Guard) have cars we can use and we can shoot SIMs outside here, too. It’s definitely an invaluable resource for our department, especially since this is in a gated area. We don’t have to worry about someone walking in during a training session.” 

From October 2022 through September 2023, the center trained 17,608 “student” officers – of whom 113 were from Lebanon County municipal police departments, according to Senior Master Sgt. Brandon Staudt of the Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

Staudt is the national guardsman in charge of the Pennsylvania Counterdrug Joint Task Force/Northeast Counterdrug Training Center. He said the center is a critical training facility for cash-strapped municipalities since field and classroom training is provided at no cost to municipal and state law enforcement agencies. 

“We’re funded through the Department of Defense and that funnels down to us through the National Guard bureau, to us directly, specifically, for counterdrug operations,” said Staudt. “There is a line item in the budget with Congress for counterdrug funding, specifically for the National Guard.”

“So it’s not like this comes from Pennsylvania taxpayers to fund it,” added Major Travis Mueller, public affairs officer for the Pennsylvania National Guard.

Although FTIG staff members do provide military training through the NCTC, law enforcement agencies provide their own training instructors while using the facility for simulated training exercises. 

The second floor of the training center, which is equipped with video cameras for session taping that can be reviewed later, is what’s known in law enforcement lingo as “a high-risk entry facility.”  

In one such room on the second floor, Derry Township police officers were training using a suicidal scenario since, as Clements noted, the department had encountered that exact real-life situation just recently. 

Without revealing the specifics of the particular lesson that was being taught since others still have to undergo the training module later this year, the officers were charged with successfully “controlling” this scenario, meaning the individual wouldn’t draw a gun at the officers. 

If the scenario became “uncontrollable,” Clements said the trainers would allow it to play out, meaning the “suicidal actor” – in this case one of the department officers – might fire a weapon at the responding officers under certain circumstances.

Sgt. Tony Clements of the Derry Township Police Department, seated, reviews a training exercise with department police officers at the Northeast Counterdrug Training Center located at Fort Indiantown Gap. (James Mentzer)

Following one such exercise, Clements and other training staff members reviewed the events that transpired with those two officers. This particular exercise ended with shots being fired by the suicidal individual first and then the officers.

“Remember when we said there’s no rank when it comes to officer safety, there’s no seniority, there’s no nothing,” said Clements to a first-year officer and his partner during that review. “If something doesn’t look right or feel right, one of you has to say something.”  

After the review ended, Clements told LebTown the goal is to provide the kind of knowledge that will help protect personnel in the field.

“He’ll never do this again (in the field), he’ll never let the person (do what she did),” said Clements about the lesson that was imparted to his officers.

Derry Township police did not utilize National Guard staff during this session – although that option is available to departments, according to Pennsylvania National Guard Staff Sgt. Keifer Bathgate.

When requested, guardsmen staff the control room to track officer team movements via the 104 strategically placed day/night cameras and 54 microphones placed throughout the center. Staff will also answer questions that arise about a training session taking place within the center.   

“We can go back and pull the footage and they can review the footage because sometimes mistakes happen,” said Bathgate. “Our motto here is that we want mistakes to happen here. If mistakes happen here, you go home at the end of the night. If they happen in the street, you might go home in a box.”

Pennsylvania National Guard Staff Sgt. Keifer Bathgate inside the control room of “The Schoolhouse.” (James Mentzer)

Clements said Derry Township police personnel have also conducted underage drinking scenario training session at the center since the building is equipped to produce low-light, loud-music and other sight and sound effects that typically happen at a party. 

Other sensory intrusions like barking dogs, human screams and gunshots can also be reproduced during a training exercise to make the scene as life-like as possible at what’s affectionately called “The Schoolhouse” by the nearly two dozen National Guardsmen who work there. 

It was also noted that the furniture is padded for arrest scenarios and doors are staged for breechers to be used to demonstrate how officers can gain access to someone who is attempting to prevent entry into that space.

Although police personnel can conduct any training they desire at The Schoolhouse, the primary focus of the NCTC is to be a drug interdiction agency for law enforcement agencies throughout its 19-state footprint. 

The NCTC’s primary service area includes states as far south as Virginia, west to Michigan and through the northeastern seaboard – although officers from all 50 states train at the center. About 6,400 officers from outside the center’s geographical footprint trained at the center during the previous fiscal year. 

“Our overarching mission is to train law enforcement officers and community-based organizations to fight the drug interdiction efforts within the country,” said Staudt, who lives in Myerstown. “One important thing to understand is that although our agencies are regionally based, we provide different courses, so we do train nationwide.”   

There’s a whole menu of training options offered at the NCTC that cater to various officer experience and skill levels. (The NCTC also has a mobile unit that travels to those departments that can’t come to them.)

“We provide contracted instruction courses, we have subject matter experts who teach those courses in law enforcement,” said Staudt. “We have our military instruction courses, which are our military instruction team who are members of the Pennsylvania National Guard and teach specific military skills to law enforcement officers. And then we also have our training supports, which are what the VR (virtual reality) mission is and the high-risk entry facility. We run the gamut from basic entry-level classes all the way up to fit the needs of seasoned narcotics officers.” 

Pennsylvania National Guard Staff Sgt. Keifer Bathgate gestures to a vehicle whose lower compartment at the rear of the van has been comprised to transport drugs and other contraband. (James Mentzer)

One high-demand training program is vehicular drug interdiction. 

Vehicles that have been confiscated from drug runners are funneled from the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General to the NCTC specifically for training since those vehicle’s compartments have been compromised by drug traffickers. (By law, their Vehicle Identification Numbers are voided and those vehicles aren’t permitted to be driven on highways once their compartments have been altered.) 

“We do have vehicles here that have very intricate stash compartments, so we can train law enforcement officers who are doing highway patrols to find those little intricacies where drugs are stashed,” said Staudt. “Our main focus, really, is to try and hit those municipal law enforcement officers, those departments that don’t get a high level of funding to train their officers. Those are the ones we really want to target and they are the ones we mostly hit.”

Bathgate, who has worked as a narcotics officer, showed several compartments in vehicles that had been altered to transport drugs. To the untrained eye, nothing appeared to be amiss. To Bathgate, however, certain red flags were raised that drew his suspicion that these vehicles might be carrying illegal substances or other contraband. 

In one real-life scenario, the area behind the audio compartment of a 2018 Chevrolet Equinox contained a handgun and three kilos of cocaine when that vehicle was confiscated along the I-80 corridor in West Hazleton.

That vehicle was wired through the cigarette lighter to allow the drug runner to disengage the front dash panel at the audio system to gain access to the vehicle’s interior at that location.

Once the audio system was removed, drugs and other contraband was placed there for transport. (LebTown was asked to report that the handgun used for training is plastic and no drugs are in the tightly wrapped package – although small amounts of real drugs can be used when a K-9 officer is being trained.)  

Concerning the classroom training offered at the NCTC, Staudt said some of those requests remain constant while others are removed as demand ebbs and flows. He added there is a working group consisting of narcotics officers, U.S. attorneys, intel analysts and other subject experts who determine what classroom courses are offered at the NCTC. 

“We base our course catalog and our curriculum off of those trends,” said Staudt. “Every single year we look at all of the classes we offer and we come up with brand new classes to fit those latest trends that we see and we’ll remove classes that are longer relevant as deemed per the law enforcement subject matter experts. All of our classes we try to fit within the National Drug Control Strategy.” 

During a training session at “The Schoolhouse,” an officer playing the role of a suicidal individual fires a weapon at another officer standing in the hallway. (James Mentzer)

Several of the most requested classroom training sessions today involve what Staudt calls the more “modern” illegal trades. (He also noted that all classroom sessions are required by law to include training in what he calls the drug nexus.)

“The highly requested ones are your more modern classes like the dark webs, access to the dark web and cryptocurrency investigations,” said Staudt. “Those are the most requested and probably our most utilized classes we provide as of late. Human trafficking is another one. The drug nexus that mixes with human trafficking go hand-in-hand, so there’s a lot of information that can be gained from that course as well.”

NCTC staff is adept at pivoting to meet the needs of law enforcement as bad actors ply their illicit trades. 

When opioids started to become prevalent, the training spotlight focused on educational efforts. Staudt said the NCTC conducted a public awareness campaign in schools and the community at-large at the onset of the opioid epidemic a few years ago.

Today, fentanyl, which is cut and then mixed with various drugs, is a highly requested classroom subject at the NCTC. 

“A lot of our classes have shifted to fentanyl and fentanyl-related substances that are out there,” said Staudt. “You’ll see that in a lot of our courses, whether it is specific to that initiative or that objective or if it is kind of programmed in the course to just understand what the impact is.”

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James Mentzer is a freelance writer whose published works include the books Pennsylvania Manufacturing: Alive and Well; Bucks County: A Snapshot in Time; United States Merchant Marine Academy: In Service to the Nation 1943-2018; A Century of Excellence: Spring Brook Country Club 1921-2021; Lancaster...


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