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Since March, we’ve followed the progress of four cadets in the Huntsville Police Department’s Academy class. The class graduated last week and will continue to work with training officer over the next 14 weeks.

The new officers – Curtis Mitchell, 21, from Chicago; Randell Plemons, 22, from Springville, Ala.; Latoya Ragland, 28, from Huntsville; and Crystal Vanaria, 26, from Orlando – sat down with City Blog writer Mark McCarter after graduation to look back at their Academy days – and at the people who inspired them.

If you’ve followed any part of this saga, you know it had to end with one last difficult moment.

After all, we’ve heard these four talk about being tased, tear-gassed and tossed about in big padded suits. We’ve heard them talk about learning to drive in pursuit, fire weapons and properly handcuff a bad guy. We’ve heard the difficulties of training, and the satisfactions of small victories.

What they didn’t hear correctly was the announced time for the final physical training exam.

“We thought,” Randell Plemons said, “it was going to be another day.”

Plemons and Curtis Mitchell went out for a big barbecue lunch. Latoya Ragland wolfed down a Burger King meal.

“Turned out, the test was that day,” Mitchell said. “We only had two hours to digest our food.”

Each ended up barfing up lunch and, Plemons bemoaned, “I still can’t eat barbecue.”

That last difficulty notwithstanding, or perhaps because of it, Vanaria’s choice of “ecstatic” to describe graduation day spoke for all four.

“It’s a big relief,” Ragland offered.

“I feel like I can run forever,” Mitchell added, not needing to add the run would not take place after a big meal.


How it all began – read the first story in the series:

Becoming an officer: Journey begins for cadets in 56th Police Academy


“I feel like I’m a whole other person,” said Plemons, who has tended to be the quieter, more introspective of the four. “When I got the job offer I was living outside Birmingham with my parents. I quit my job. I moved up here and didn’t know anybody except an aunt. It was a whole new beginning of life.”

In joining the Huntsville Police Department, he’ll be following the footsteps of his father Mark, a former HPD officer.

There is an interesting common bond that has emerged among the four. Each was influenced into his or her decision by another police officer. That’s a good reminder for all officers, to realize that even the smallest positive move can have large implications.

“It was easier getting this job having a supportive father,” said Plemons, who’ll be married in October. “He was able to take care of his family and I want to be able to do the same.”

Curtis Mitchell Sr. was a Chicago cop and “just seeing the impact my father made helping people, and seeing people in the community coming up and greeting him and saying how much he’s done for them, it was like, ‘Wow! This job can really make a difference.’”

Ragland was a feisty kid growing up in Mason Court and Terry Heights “and we were taught to stay away from (police officers).” She was prone to fights, even as she arrived at Butler High.

“As I got older, (school resource officer) Oscar Smith said, ‘You should be a police officer.’ He made sure I stayed out of trouble because I was a star athlete,” she said. “He was a big motivation for me growing up. He was the first officer I knew and from that positive image (I was) reminded there are a lot of things you can do with your life and your career despite how you grew up.”

There was literally a life-saving impact on Vanaria. She was working full-time and going to school full-time at Central Florida, and commuted to Cocoa Beach where she was working at a Dunkin’ Donuts. She fell asleep in the wee hours of the morning while crossing a bridge. Her car careened into the guardrail and was dangling over the water when an Officer Gorman of the Cocoa Beach Police Department spotted the wreck.

He hustled to the car and was able to pull Vanaria to safety.

They’d see each other later when he visited the donut shop “and I still made sure he got his coffee,” she said.

“The way he touched my life and that impact, to be able to give that to just one person once in your life,” Vanaria said, “that would be great.”


Watch the Huntsville Police Department graduation ceremonies