JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — On Oct. 29, 91 cadets reported to the Mississippi Law Enforcement Officers Training Academy in Pearl to become a part of Class 62 of the Mississippi Highway Patrol.

There are men and women. They are black and white. They are all ages. And they were told that they have signed up for what might be one of the toughest assignments of their lives.

"You are now in the process of becoming an MHP cadet, which is characterized as one who possesses the highest law enforcement virtues," said Lt. Col. Thomas Tuggle, the director of MLEOTA. "He obeys orders, respects his seniors, and strives constantly to be the best in everything he does. Discipline and spirit are the hallmarks of an MHP cadet."

As their future commanders spoke to them in the training room, they sat at attention, some of them with remnants of hair on their collars from where their heads had been shaved as soon as they arrived at MLEOTA. They stared straight ahead, their hands on their legs, their binders and water bottles arranged just so in front of them.

As they sat in that room in Pearl, some of their future brothers in MHP were on the scene of a standoff with a gunman on I-55 in Tate County.

"We're sitting here right now, we've got guys who will be doing pushups in just a few minutes, but we've also got a situation on I-55 North," Col. Chris Gillard said. "We don't have time to get ready, we have to stay ready."

"I'd remind you this is just the starting point," said Lt. Col. Randy Ginn. "You have 19 weeks of training that lie before you where you'll be challenged physically, mentally and spiritually."

There are 30 more waiting in the wings, ready to fill a slot if someone drops out of training, which history shows is likely. Meanwhile, officials with MHP and the Department of Public Safety are hoping that there will be another school to follow this one because the number of troopers on the highway is the lowest since 1986.

Currently there are 465 active troopers with 650 slots allotted, Gillard said. Meanwhile, 148 troopers are eligible to retire.

Mississippi Department of Public Safety Commissioner Marshall Fisher said he has requested another school to follow this one directly in his legislative budget proposal, and that another will be requested for the following year as well.

"All of them won't retire, but there's a good chance about half of them will, so then we'd be right back where we were," he said. "It's a public safety matter. The more law enforcement presence that you have on the streets or the highways, it has an effect. People slow down when they see a law enforcement officer."

That means that if the 60 expected to make it through Class 62 and another 60 make it through in the class authorities hope follows, MHP could still be understaffed, depending on retirements.

The school consists of five months of rigorous training. It brings the cadets face to face with what it's like to be under extreme stress physically and mentally, and it builds the bonds that last a lifetime between troopers.

The class also counts for 12 college credit hours. Gillard said the tough training is preparation for real scenarios.

"People think the physical aspect of the Mississippi Highway Patrol is the tough part, but in all actuality the academic is the hardest part," Gillard said. "We train different. We train for the job that we're given. We don't have a car partner and we've got some troopers working three to four counties. So if there's a situation that arises out on the road, your training will kick in."

MHP is recognized across the country as an elite agency, regularly placing in competitions involving fitness, shooting and SWAT, among others. But they still have been struggling against their low numbers for some time.

The issues of lower pay than other states, attrition, and the stress of the job have been eating away at numbers for years. That has taken its toll on the roads, increasing response times, affecting holiday traffic details, and leaving roads unguarded when backup is needed in particular parts of the state during natural disasters or SWAT calls.

"It's important to me as a professional law enforcement officer that we hire the brightest and the best because they stand between the public and the people who would do us harm," Fisher said.

And while it's inevitable that some of the cadets won't make it through the school this time, it's not because every one of them is not appreciated.

"I'd love for all of them to make it, it would be great for all the people in that room right now to make it through this academy," Fisher said. "The chance of that happening is pretty slim, but we'd figure out a way to pay for it if they did."

Gillard said he knows that the ones who make it through will be the ones with the heart to do it.

"We'd like for all of them to graduate because we need them," Gillard said. "It's all about the will and the grit they have to withstand the challenge."

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Information from: The Clarion-Ledger, http://www.clarionledger.com