Drury law enforcement student overcomes disability to graduate

Published: May. 17, 2019 at 6:13 PM CDT
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Graduation day at Drury's Law Enforcement Academy is always a special time for all its students and families.

But for 24 year-old Joe Presley, a Bolivar native who now lives in Harrison, Arkansas, it was the culmination of a dream that seemed like it would never happen.

"After everything, finally," said his wife Elizabeth.

"I didn't know if we'd reach this day," his mom Connie said.

Presley was born with no left arm below the elbow. But from learning to drive to tying his shoes, he's overcome his disability and after originally wanting to be a storm chaser ("I always wanted to drive fast and got in trouble in recent years for that," he admitted) he instead chose law enforcement because of a desire to serve the public.

"You can't really chalk it up to just wanting to help people," he said. "It's much deeper than that. It's a calling."

Presley, who has a 6 month-old daughter, started his pursuit of a law enforcement career with the same determination he'd demonstrated throughout his life.

"As my father put it, he's tenacious," Elizabeth said with a laugh.

"He's always bee a go-getter," Connie added. "He does not understand the word, 'No.'"

But the path was a long one.

He applied to be an officer at a town in Arkansas and made it through the physical and written tests only to be rejected during the medical exam.

He was then accepted into a police academy in Oklahoma but got dropped after concerns that he couldn't maintain adequate control when he was handcuffing someone.

After those setbacks, Presley returned to Harrison as a car salesman until the birth of his daughter, Donna Jo, renewed his spirit.

"This little creature that I have now has just opened up a whole lot more in my life," he said with a smile. "I didn't want my daughter seeing her father giving up on his dreams."

So Presley approached Drury University about joining its law enforcement academy and officials there decided that instead of focusing on Presley's limitations, they would make it their job to develop techniques to make him successful.

"The initial thought was can he even be a police officer?" said Drury Law Enforcement Academy Director Tony Bowers. "Just based on the idea of what a traditional police officer looks like, he wasn't fitting that. But when he provided me with names and examples of other police officers across the United States with similar disabilities, that really took away the concern. So then it became 'Hey, we train people. So why can't we train him to be a police officer with one arm?'"

Sgt. Steve Pratt, the academy's expert in defensive tactics, was put in charge of altering the techniques to fit Presley's needs.

"It was just a matter of figuring leverage points with what he had available to him," Pratt said. "So to substitute for the hand, we're looking at other parts of the body that can be used. Based on the different training I've been through, the answers were already there. It's just a matter of are we willing to accept the answers that were already out there."

In Drury's case, the answer was a resounding "Yes" and the resulting 750 hours of training was on to meet Missouri's requirement for a Class A certification to become a peace officer.

Presley can now do the same things his other classmates do from shooting and reloading a gun to pulling a 160-pound weight and yes, administering handcuffs.

"His desire to succeed overcame any kind of question of whether or not he would make it," Bowers said. "I don't think his classmates looked at him as being a handicap to the class. They saw him as being an equal if not being someone that they had to work even harder to keep up with."

Now though he'll be a whole new set of challenges in the world of law enforcement.

"It will be a worry every day," Elizabeth admitted.

"I didn't say anything out loud," Connie said. "But inside I'm terrified."

But her son is already an inspiration even before he puts on a badge.

"I came from a rather hard life and I was able to turn it into something positive," he said. "Within our Constitution we have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Luckily I was able to keep pursuing my happiness. But a lot of people out there don't feel they can do that. At the beginning I felt that way too but over the years I've been able to throw more stuff into my tool box. The ability, the knowledge, the connections. I want other people who don't think they can do it to achieve their dreams."