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Federal shutdown closes law enforcement training center

At a Department of Homeland Security facility in Georgia, where nearly 70,000 officers took courses last year, doors are closed and most employees are furloughed.

October 02, 2013|By Brian Bennett
  • Empty chairs at the Old Style Barber Shop in Glynco, Ga., down the street from the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center. The government shutdown has closed most of the center, and the effect is already rippling through the surrounding community.
Empty chairs at the Old Style Barber Shop in Glynco, Ga., down the street… (Brian Bennett / Los Angeles…)

GLYNCO, Ga. — Nestled in a corner of southeast Georgia known for marsh-ringed islands, grassy dunes and year-round golf, this picturesque area might seem far from the political impasse in Washington that has shut down most of the federal government.

But last year, nearly 70,000 law enforcement officers from across the country took courses at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center here, a Department of Homeland Security facility so sprawling it has its own ZIP code. They practiced on 18 firearms ranges and ran armed drills inside a mock train station, an airport terminal and a Main Street.

On Wednesday, about 45 of more than 1,000 employees were at work, with the rest officially furloughed. The dormitories, mess halls, laboratories and other parts of the vast complex — plus nearby hotels, beach resorts and shops that depend on it — were mostly quiet. All courses were suspended.

The ripple effects of the shutdown will take days to work through the national economy, and many Americans may not feel the impact directly. But this rural coastal community is an immediate casualty, and local officials are furious that Congress and the White House cannot agree on how to keep the government running, especially when it comes to law enforcement.

"It is absolutely horrendous," said Mary Hunt, chairwoman of the Glynn County Board of Commissioners.

The interagency center, amid dense oaks draped with Spanish moss just north of Brunswick, the county seat, is not just the largest employer in the county. Trainees often extend their stay, flooding motels, golf courses (the nearby Sea Island Golf Club is a stop on the PGA tour), charter fishing fleets and other attractions on the area's so-called Golden Isles.

In all, the 1,600-acre federal facility pumps an estimated $600 million into the area's economy every year, according to Woody Woodside Jr., head of the local chamber of commerce.

But hundreds of officers and agents attending training courses were told to pack up and leave Tuesday morning, when the shutdown went into effect, and thousands more canceled plans to come. Most of the staff were told to come to work only to pick up furlough notices.

"Everyone deals with it differently," said Joseph W. Wright, chief of staff at the center. "There is no doubt it is trying."

The closure will cost the government agencies that send officers here. Once funding resumes, classes will need to be rescheduled and travel plans changed, incurring extra fees. But Wright said he and his staff were planning to resume operations quickly.

"If the government reopens, we are prepared to come in the next day and get back to training law enforcement officers," he said.

Ninety-one federal law enforcement agencies and partner organizations use the training center, including the U.S. Border Patrol, the Bureau of Prisons, the U.S. Marshals Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

State, local, tribal, territorial and international agencies also send trainees, according to the center's website, which now carries a notice that it is not being updated "due to the lapse in federal funding." In all, about 1 million officers and agents have taken courses at the center since it opened in 1970.

Down the street, the Old Style Barber Shop normally would be full of trainees and instructors by early afternoon, officers and agents lining up for high-and-tight buzz cuts or a cleanup around the ears. But only one customer was sitting for a trim.

"It's bad when you have 15 waiting chairs and nobody's waiting," said owner Greg Breighner, 49, gesturing to empty plastic chairs along a wall dotted with hundreds of law enforcement patches. "It's going to devastate the whole community."

Three of his buddies, training center instructors who got furlough notices, picked up and went deer hunting in north Georgia. Breighner decided to stay and man the barber shop. He will dip into his savings to keep the lights on if the shutdown lasts, he said.

"It's like my daddy told me, 'When it's sunny, you put it away. When it's raining, you go get it,'" Breighner said, flicking a cigarette ash to the side.

Breighner doesn't blame the shutdown specifically on House Republicans, Senate Democrats or President Obama. "It's the whole system," he said. "They don't look out for the people as much as they look out for their careers."

A few doors down at Sally's Cop Shop, co-owner Heather Ray plans to reduce store hours and tell some of her 10 employees to take a few days off.

"It's going to be hard to keep them," Ray said. She has already turned off the air conditioning to save money.

The cavernous store is packed floor to ceiling with official jackets, hats, uniforms, patches and plaques from federal law enforcement agencies. They often place bulk orders to outfit new recruits at the center.

The Cop Shop is also popular among trainees seeking gifts for the folks back home. Items include a blue Bureau of Prisons baby one-piece and a pink oversized T-shirt that reads: "Support law enforcement ... Take a fed to bed!"

Some trainees were just nine days from finishing a two-month training course when they were sent home. "I think it's crazy," Ray said.

brian.bennett@latimes.com

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