Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Michael Hazellief will soon be leaving Okeechobee to attend FBI training at the National Training Academy, but when he was called in to Sheriff Noel E. Stephen’s office back in March, he had no idea what he was in for. They called him into the office, he said, and they looked very serious. He had no idea what he had done wrong, but he thought, “Oh, man, this must be bad.” They really dragged it out, too, he explained. Finally, they said, “how would you feel about going to the National Academy? The FBI National Academy.”
“I don’t think I said anything. I think I just looked at them. Then I said, ‘Did you say the FBI National Academy?’ It’s like the Super Bowl for law enforcement. It is THE thing to go to.”
It’s a very prestigious training opportunity, and Sheriff Stephen was contacted by some of the FBI alumni who have been through the National Academy, people from this region and people in charge of this region. They contacted him and let him know there was an opening at the academy, and they really wanted to send someone from Okeechobee. At that point, he wasn’t even aware that anyone had ever been sponsored through the OCSO, he said, but both Sheriff Stephen and Sgt. Hazellief were friends with Clayton Williams, who was the sheriff in the late ’70s and had gone through the National Academy in 1978. They just hadn’t connected those dots, they said.
Since 1978, there has been no one sponsored through the OCSO, so when they approached him with it, he got to thinking about it. He really wanted someone from this area to be able to do it, and he wanted to choose someone who would represent the agency well and be able to benefit from it. Sgt. Hazellief was the first that came to his mind, he said. “We ran against each other in the last election for sheriff, and we have worked very well together. That is why I have retained him. We have had an excellent working relationship. I promoted and encouraged him all this time and I want somebody to carry the torch. I want someone who will represent the agency and the community as I would. I think that’s my duty — to train people up to not just take care of the here and now but also the future. Sgt. Hazellief being part of my team is one piece of the puzzle, and I asked him if he wanted to take on this responsibility. It’s a big commitment, to say the least, for him, his family and the agency to lose him for three months. The goal is to bring everything he gains back to help support the mission of the sheriff’s office,” said Sheriff Stephen.
“As with any training like this,” said the sheriff, “one of the main goals in training and conferences is the networking that is developed. That is priceless to be able to have another person, in another jurisdiction we can soundboard off of.”
Sgt. Hazellief said, “Most people don’t realize what a big deal it was for the sheriff to keep me on board. That just doesn’t happen. The fact that he kept me here after the election says a lot about him and his leadership. I can’t tell you what it has meant for me. My heart is here in Okeechobee — both of our hearts are here. I will be indebted to this man for the rest of my life. Without his leadership none of this would be happening.
The academy takes a three-prong approach to education. The first is the class part. The second is physical fitness. As soon as he heard about the opportunity, he knew he needed to “get his butt in gear,” he said. It’s challenging! You run Hogan’s alley which is the Marines’ confidence course. If you achieve it you get a yellow brick for making it through. The third prong is the networking the sheriff mentioned.
He leaves July 7. He has a countdown on his phone and can tell you how many minutes until he leaves if you ask him. Training will need to continue while he is away, said Sheriff Stephen, so Cpl. Heath Hughes will be taking over as training officer. When Sgt. Hazellief returns, he will not return to his former position as training officer but will hold a new position. Cpl. Hughes will be shadowing Sgt. Hazellief until he leaves so there is no interruption to the training period.
As training officer, Cpl. Hughes is in charge of all training for new recruits, instructor training, continuing education, advance classes for what people do already and Guardian training. He won’t necessarily teach every class but will make sure they get everyone in the right place to get training taken care of.
Most of Sgt. Hazellief’s classes will be graduate level and will help him toward his master’s degree.
He will be taking a class on emotional intelligence which is about interpersonal skills — your ability to empathize. “Nobody calls us because they are having a good day,” he said. “You have to be able to have an awareness for safety and take control of the situation but also an ability to empathize while doing that at the same time. It’s a hard construct to juggle. It’s not just about what we do on the job but how we deal with it internally which leads back to the physical fitness.”
He will also be taking a class called Essentials for Law Enforcement Executives that deals with leadership within the law enforcement organization and building relationships within the community.
He will be taking a class called Psychology of Communication, which is designed to acquaint leaders with their own communication styles and preferences as well as how these preferences influence interpersonal relationships in both societal and work related environment.
One of his classes will be fitness in law enforcement. He said there has been a big initiative in the last couple of years because of recognition that post-traumatic stress disorder in public safety workers as a whole has been higher. It’s been found that they have a higher suicide rate in their profession than they do death by people trying to kill them. They’ve learned that for good mental health you need good physical health. Physical exercise releases endorphins into the brain which is why physical fitness is such a huge factor.
His final two classes will deal with contemporary issues in law enforcement and with law enforcement image.
When she heard about the opportunity, his wife responded the way she always does. He got real lucky with his wife, he said. She is very patient and supportive of him. She said, “If that’s what you want to do then I am behind you.” She is very happy for him, and she will drive up and visit family in the Carolinas. He will meet her on a couple of weekends so they can visit. She’s not happy about 10 weeks, though. They have never been apart that long, but “she’s my rock,” he said. You can’t function in this profession without family support. You need a strong support base surrounding you, because it is very mentally, emotionally and physically challenging. You need a stable home life to balance what you go through on the job, he said.