Police Academy 2.0: Less military training, more empathy
As the state police academy adopts new ways to train recruits in how to deal with the public, The Seattle Times followed one class to see if the changes are taking hold.
Seattle Times staff reporter
At first glance, the 29 recruits who stepped to the stage on graduation day didn’t look much different from past classes whose faded photographs dot the walls of the state police academy in Burien.
But as they prepared to scatter to 16 law-enforcement agencies in places as big as Seattle and tiny as Royal City in Eastern Washington, the newly minted members of Class 689 stood at the forefront of a fundamental change in training the state’s future police officers.
Breaking years of tradition, the academy has shifted away from fashioning warriors in a military mold.
Instead, the academy’s goal is to train “guardians” of communities.
“This is not about preparing soldiers to go to war. It’s a different role,” said Sue Rahr, the former King County sheriff who last year took over as executive director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, which runs the academy.
Class 689, which graduated May 30, still learned the basics of police work, such as handcuffing, writing reports and handling firearms.
But the instruction also included an increased emphasis on expressing empathy, following constitutional requirements and treating citizens with respect and dignity.
On one much-anticipated day, class members absorbed blasts of pepper spray in the face to personally experience its painful effects.
While their eyes burned and they struggled to breathe, the recruits had to recite specific U.S. Supreme Court language and Washington state law regarding the legal use of force — underscoring in dramatic fashion the direction the academy is going.
At a time when the Seattle Police Department is adopting federally mandated reforms to curb the use of excessive force, the education of the state’s newest crop of police officers — including three SPD graduates — has taken on added significance.
To understand the changes, The Seattle Times was given unprecedented access to the academy and allowed to follow Class 689 as it underwent 19 weeks of training between January and May.
Sharing their stories
The class began with 30 recruits, ranging in age from their 20s to 40s, all men except for one woman. The woman hurt her shoulder and plans to return for a new class. SPD dropped one recruit when he failed tests.
Days into the training, the recruits spent the afternoon of Jan. 28 sharing their personal stories, or oral biographies.
Encouraged to be candid, one recruit, a former Marine destined for the Vancouver Police Department, said when he first heard the class would be moving from a warrior to guardian model, he thought that was “lame.”
But as he thought more about it, he said, he realized his job would be to defend the Constitution and protect all citizens.
Others spoke of personal experiences that propelled them toward police work, of wanting to make a difference and of being influenced by the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
One soft-spoken recruit held the room’s attention as he revealed how he had been required to help raise his younger siblings after his father began abusing steroids and alcohol and his mother became hooked on methamphetamine.
His goal, he said, was to make something of his life.
But it was recruit Scott Moen, headed for the Chelan County Sheriff’s Office, who put into words the sum total of the stories and broader purpose of the exercise.
Asked how he would be able work with immigrant and minority groups in his community, he said he recognized the challenge but viewed it this way: “Everybody has a story. We’re all people.”
Standing in the back of the room, Russ Hicks, a Fife police officer and lead instructor for the class, seized on the comment.
Remember, Hicks told them, everyone has a story.
No one, he reminded them, is faceless.
Shift to be felt statewide
All police agencies throughout the state, except the State Patrol, hire their recruits and send them to what is called the Basic Law Enforcement Academy. Some recruits from afar live at the site during the training; others commute.
The academy will train about 250 recruits this year and 300 next year as baby-boom officers increasingly retire.
The Criminal Justice Training Commission, a 14-member group made up of criminal-justice leaders and public officials, hired Rahr as executive director in March 2012.
Rahr, who had served in law enforcement for 33 years and as King County sheriff since 2005, said she was bothered when she arrived at the academy and noticed plaques and symbols promoting the warrior mentality.
“That’s not the message we should be instilling in these recruits,” she said.
Enforcement “isn’t the goal; it’s just the tool,” Rahr said, calling it just one part of a job that also includes helping people.
“By having their role established in the Constitution — and, you know, the bigger umbrella of democracy — that sets the tone for everything that goes past that,” she said. “If they only see themselves as enforcers, that’s going to limit what they’re paying attention to, what they’re interested in learning.”
As sheriff, Rahr introduced a new training program in 2011 called L.E.E.D. — for listen, explain, equity and dignity. Ultimately adopted by the Sheriff’s Office and the Seattle Police Department, it put a premium on verbal skills and de-escalation techniques.
At that time, Rahr noted research had shown that despite better training of law-enforcement officers and lower crime rates, public trust in police still lagged. People need to tell “their side of the story,” she said, and police officers need to better explain what they are doing and why.
While some police officials maintained that officers already treat people with dignity, Rahr, in her new job, made L.E.E.D. a central element of the academy’s curriculum, reflecting her belief that “listening to someone is the most effective way to demonstrate respect.”
The training commission, which includes several police chiefs and sheriffs, gave its support.
Rahr said she felt it was particularly important to include L.E.E.D. in defensive tactics and firearms training, since many of the recruits relate well to the instructors.
“The best control tactic is to get voluntary compliance, and the most effective way to get compliance is to use the L.E.E.D. model,” Rahr said.
More emphasis is being put on communication and behavioral psychology as a tool to gain control and compliance.
Recruits need to learn how to make quick judgments, measure behaviors and consider options like social skills to de-escalate a conflict, Rahr said.
Voluntary compliance also keeps officers safe, she said. At the same time, the academy will “always” teach recruits how to use force when it is required.
“If somebody’s pointing a gun at you, you’re not going to use the L.E.E.D. model.”
In making the changes, Rahr said she struggled to come up with an overall theme until her history-major son suggested the guardian model referenced in Plato’s “The Republic” — which describes guardians who are gentle with citizens but fierce against enemies.
Under a pilot program, Class 689 became the first that wasn’t required to follow some military protocols, such as bracing against a wall when approached by staff.
Instead, class members were instructed to initiate a conversation to get them to think on their feet, make eye contact and approach people in the way expected of a police officer — skills that have diminished in an era of texting.
“Snapping to attention requires no thinking,” said Rahr, whose aim is to promote mutual respect recruits can take to the street.
To sway the class, Rahr said, she appealed to them as members of a “patriotic” generation, whose beliefs had been forged by 9/11. She told the class — many with military backgrounds — that guardians protect democratic values for which warriors have died.
Class 689 embraced the idea, choosing “Guardians of the Gate” and “We the People” as its mottos — even having T-shirts made with those inscriptions.
But the real test came over the 19 weeks of training.
A higher standard
“A higher standard is not a double standard. Persons accepting positions of public trust take on new obligations and are free not to accept them if they do not want to live up to the higher standard.” — from a class lesson sheet.
Seated in a Feb. 4 class on ethics, the recruits tackled a series of questions, including what they would do if they saw a fellow officer improperly dispose of marijuana seized as evidence, heard their training officer make crude comments to a homeless woman or witnessed an off-duty officer leave a bar intoxicated and get into a car.
After breaking into discussion groups, their answers included: notify a supervisor of the improper disposal of evidence, document the offensive remarks, arrest the off-duty officer for physical control of a vehicle while under the influence.
One recruit was overruled when he favored giving the drunk officer a ride home.
The exercise reflected a key component of the curriculum: decision-making and problem-solving.
The curriculum is als flexible, allowing instructors to look for opportunities to weave the academy’s core themes into basic course work.
During a Feb. 21 gym class on searching suspects, the instructor, Raphael Park, a Bellevue police officer, told of a gang member who became belligerent about a search of his backpack. The gang member, Park said, didn’t want police to see photos of his premature baby who had died, as well as the baby’s mother.
It was important to remember, Park said, that gang members have “their own lives and their own issues.”
Showing “respect and compassion,” he said, is “going to make your job much easier.”
Under the new program, the academy is focusing on neuroscience and teaching recruits how their brains function. Before they can control others, the thinking goes, they first must understand self-control.
In a March 4 class on tactical thinking, the recruits watched a video — which had gone viral on YouTube — of a Baltimore police officer who berated, grabbed and pushed a young skateboarder in 2007. The officer, offended at being called “dude,” was ultimately fired.
After watching, the class broke into groups to write responses to the incident.
One group composed a statement from the police chief, saying the video didn’t reflect the department’s standards. “If this was my child in the video,” their statement said, “I would be concerned and equally outraged.”
Another group wrote a news story, sticking carefully to the facts while pointedly chronicling the conduct.
The other groups wrote an apologetic letter, from the officer, to the mother of the youth; a complaint letter from the mother to the department; and a reprimand to the officer, telling him, “Your verbal use of force was clearly outside the set guidelines, and was a complete embarrassment for this department.”
As the exercise concluded, Hicks told the class, “Take a look at how you would want your family to be treated by the police.”
Respect yields information
Call it the hat test.
It occurred April 25, when the recruits were dispatched to mock scenes throughout the campus ranging from a man armed with a pitchfork to a domestic dispute. Taking turns, recruits handled radio calls and played the role of citizens.
At one point, two recruits rolled up to two men beating another man in a field.
“I wanted this,” said the man being beaten, theatrical blood on his face, in what turned out to be a gang initiation.
But to get the full story, one of responding recruits had to deal with the man’s request to retrieve his baseball hat on the ground.
It tested whether the recruit would pick up the hat, a form of respect that would, in turn, allow him to establish a rapport and gain important information.
In this case, the recruit retrieved the hat.
“If you show respect, it goes a long way,” Hicks explained.
A class coming together
On the day they were pepper-sprayed, May 9, the recruits also had to demonstrate their ability to defend themselves if the chemical irritant were ever turned on them.
Doused one at a time, they moved to a punching bag, then a dummy they struck with a baton. After that, they responded to a question, handcuffed a suspect and read aloud, into a car-radio microphone, a long, difficult name on a driver’s license.
Throughout, they cheered each other on. “I’m proud to be one of your brothers,” Christopher Camren, an Ellensburg Police Department recruit, told the exhausted group afterward.
The class also united behind its community-service requirement, going beyond the usual “check-the-box” approach.
On its own, the class devised a project aimed at children and youth called “Playing for Keeps,” using education, interaction and athletics to address juvenile crime and bridge barriers with the community.
Breaking into squads, one cleaned up the yard of a single mother with two young children. “We transformed that house in a day,” said Daniel Erickson, a Seattle Police Department recruit.
Other squads visited a community center; ran a football camp; and worked with high-risk youth at Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission.
Moreover, the class produced a PowerPoint presentation so they could propose the project to their respective departments.
Academy officials were awe-struck. Never had they seen a class grow so much as people, said assistant instructor Ian Edwards, a Snohomish County corrections deputy.
Facing the resistance
The changes have not come without challenges. Rahr, the executive director, removed a staff member who didn’t embrace the new program, and she has dealt with skepticism about dropping military protocols.
She also knows the recruits, in their new jobs, will encounter resistance to the guardian concept. But she said she is confident they will hold on to the ideals, and believes there is wide support among police chiefs and sheriffs.
Ultimately, Rahr said, she hopes to alter the police culture statewide, including teaching the guardian principles to department field trainers and law-enforcement leaders. A pilot program is to begin this summer.
“Until it’s through the entire fabric of the organization, we’re not going to change the behavior on the street long term,” Rahr said.
Back when the class began, however, Rahr’s main concern was whether the recruits would buy into the changes. When she learned they had elected a 36-year-old West Point graduate with 12 years in the Army as class president, she worried his military background would be an impediment.
So Rahr met with the veteran, Al Weinnig, an Olympia Police Department recruit who had served as a Blackhawk helicopter pilot in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I just laid it out on the table,” Rahr recalled. “I said I’m very worried the class is going to follow you down this military path. And I explained the whole warrior/guardian thing, this is what I am trying to do, this is what I am trying to accomplish.
“And so I finally shut up, and said, ‘What’s your reaction?’ And he broke out into a great big smile. And his response was, ‘Thank goodness, I’m done being a warrior. I don’t want to do that anymore. I specifically chose this career because I want a different role.’ ”
“I knew in that second,” said Rahr, “that we were gonna be just fine.”
Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this story.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @stevemiletich.