TORRINGTON – There’s no denying Torrington resident Larry Curtis has a sense of adventure. It’s what drew him to Wyoming in the first place, and eventually led the Torrington Police Department patrol officer to Canada, Iraq, and most recently, Romania, to share knowledge and experience about community policing with people from around the world.
Curtis grew up about 20 miles west of Chicago in Lombard, Ill.
“I wanted to come out west,” he said. “I knew some folks out here, and they said, ‘Come on out.’ I thought it would be interesting.”
In 1980, Curtis made the trek to Wyoming, and soon after met his wife, Mary. A few years later, he was embarking on a career he’d never considered.
“In 1983, I joined the police department,” he said. “It was kind of funny to join the police department – I grew up across the street from the police station … I knew all the police officers, I had no fascination with it … then I moved out to Torrington and met a fellow who had a background in law enforcement and would go on to teach criminal justice at Eastern Wyoming College – Glenn Schleve – and he encouraged me to join.”
The encounter would result in a successful livelihood spanning several decades – and still continuing to this day. Curtis obtained a bachelor’s degree in justice studies from Chadron State College, along with completing some graduate hours in counseling. He also graduated from the Wyoming Law Enforcement Academy in 1984 and the Federal Bureau of Investigation National Academy in 1999.
After retiring from the police department in 2004 as a detective lieutenant, Curtis went to Iraq for two years as a police advisor. He returned and began teaching criminal justice at EWC, in addition to rejoining the police force part-time.
“During that time, I met Dr. David Banville (at EWC),” Curtis said. “Part of his education was spent teaching in Romania, and he and I swapped stories about teaching in other cultures … he wondered if I would be interested in going to Romania to visit schools and police departments and said he had contacts in Romania that would help me do that … I just thought it was an outstanding idea.”
Some of Curtis’ enthusiasm for travel stemmed from a class he took at Chadron State.
“There was a class (called) Comparative Criminal Justice Systems,” he said. “This particular instructor, Dr. George Watson, taught that and just made it a really interesting class. It made me want to visit other countries and cultures to see how their policing systems operate.”
Way up north
Before Iraq and Romania, Curtis headed north to Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada in 1991 to tour the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Academy, visit the Provincial Prison, meet with judges and attorneys in the court system and ride with city police officers.
“The experience opened my eyes to a different perspective on policing,” he said. “In particular, police officers in Canada are known as working for the Police Service. Which I thought was an important distinction from American police who work in departments or agencies. These experiences motivated me to want to, at some point in my career, immerse myself in another country and culture for an extended period of time – a year or more.”
A war zone
The opportunity to travel came following 9/11 during the war in Iraq.
“The State Department was looking for American police officers to mentor and train Iraqi police officers,” Curtis said. “I thought, now is my chance to not only spend an extensive amount of time in another country and culture, but it involved my skills as a police officer along with the added element that I would be operating in a war zone. What’s not to like? So I resigned my position with the TPD and arrived in Baghdad in March of 2004. I spent two years there. I asked to be assigned in the Basra region because it was in the Southeast Multinational Military District.”
In the book, “Roadside Bombs and Democracy: An American Police Officer in Iraq” author Ron Little details the time he spent with Curtis in the war zone.
“We were told to train and mentor but were given no specific goals or guidelines. Realistically, we were to ‘wing it.’ We were promised we would get everything needed to function: our own office trailer, living quarters, internet, toilet, and shower facilities. We were promised more officers, but nothing ever materialized … Larry and I ended up depending on the Brits out of necessity; we had one vehicle and only two of us, so we couldn’t go anywhere on our own and could only travel with military.”
Ten years later, Curtis headed to Romania to discuss community policing at a conference, returning again in October of last year to offer his thoughts on community interventions for school safety. Each visit, he spent a week interacting with residents, answering questions about American policing, and discovering how the Romanian criminal justice system is organized.
“I thought the ideas were well received,” Curtis said of his first trip to Romania. “These ideas included: 1. Identifying problems that impact the quality of life in a community; 2. Understanding that not all community problems can be solved through enforcement; 3. Developing partnerships within the community to mitigate or solve the problems; 4. Focusing police efforts on crime prevention and enforcement strategies will improve and maintain a healthy and positive relationship between the police and the public they serve. Along with speaking at the conference I visited area schools and met with groups of students and teachers. This included grade school through high school. It was a great experience. The children had many questions about American life, which were fun to answer and talk about. They also had the chance to practice their English language skills.”
Curtis added he also found the experience helpful because he was starting a position with the TPD and the Goshen County School District as a fulltime school resource officer in the fall of 2016.
“My second visit to Pitesti, Romania in October 2018 also lasted a week and again included a conference presentation, visits to schools and meeting with police officers/ gendarmerie (military officers with civil jurisdiction) at the Arges County Inspectorate Office,” he said. “Participants at the conference included educators, administrators, gendarmerie and a commander from the local National Police office. As I listened to questions and comments during the meeting, I realized that the problems of school safety, violence and social problems brought into schools from the community were not issues limited just to the USA. It was very interesting to see how another culture proactively was trying to manage these problems in their schools. My meeting with local gendarmerie was just as eye opening. The topics they wanted to discuss included ‘hate-speech’ and radicalization and polarization as it relates to terrorism problems. One bit of common ground we laughed about was media treatment of police – that is one day the story is how officers are great heroes rescuing someone, while the next day police are viewed as the villains for arresting the wrong person.”
The core of these trips is engaging with the public to understand what issues are important to them, what problems there are, and to help solve those problems with community members, Curtis explained.
“I believe the visits were well received,” he said. “The folks that invited me were very gracious, and the conference participants were quite engaged. The school children were very enthusiastic during our meetings. The police officers I met with were very professional and as curious about American policing as I was about Romanian criminal justice and its development since their independence after the break up of the Soviet Union.
“One difference between my first visit there and my second was, on some of the school visits, two officers of the gendarmerie joined me … and their participation made all the difference,” he continued. “They brought with them some of their police equipment and the children loved it. It was fun having two local police and an American police officer working together to engage with the school children.”
While no longer teaching at EWC, Curtis is back to full-time at the TPD. He has also served as a DARE instructor for approximately 25 years. He said his experience in other countries enriches his career and interactions here.
“It’s quite interesting, and I enjoy it. When I go into classrooms … I can give students and folks a new perspective they might not otherwise get,” he said. “For me personally, I was interested in immersion in another culture, but it also allowed me to talk to others about policing and engage in education in the schools. Engaging with children at our local schools and college is a first-rate experience, and it helps me as much as it helps them.”
Ever the adventurer, Curtis said discussions are already underway regarding another trip to Romania.
“I use my vacation time to do this, I pay for it myself – I really enjoy (this) sort of thing,” he said. “I can’t thank Loredana Sima (Trainor/Educational Projects Organizer for ‘Save the Children’ NGO, Arges County, Romania) enough for inviting me and organizing these trips, conferences and school visits. Seeing how other people and cultures and communities solve problems and work together with the police and each other, it just – it helps me. I think being a police officer is about more than just writing tickets, if you want a career you need to be able to (engage with the public) … experiencing other policing and other cultures has made me a better police officer and a better person, as well.”