Up until this January, students at the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, otherwise known as the police academy in Burien, were required to brace in the hallway when they came across a higher up. That means they had to immediately snap to attention, look straight ahead and not speak. That is just one example of the military style used to train future police officers at the academy.
But Executive Director Sue Rahr, who up until last year was the King County Sheriff, made a major shift in January. Instead of training future officers to be warriors, she thinks it’s more beneficial to train them as guardians.
“What I saw when I got to the academy was a real increase in the whole military model being trained there. I thought that was an odd model because it doesn’t fit very well with the skills that we actually need for police officers to perform on the street.”
Skills like communication. Which is why she put an end to bracing.
“The comments I had heard from trainers, from chiefs and sheriffs is, you know, this new young generation of recruits, initiating a conversation is not one of their skills and it’s something we need to work on. So I thought, well why do we teach them to snap to attention and go mute when what we really need them to do is learn how to initiate a conversation? So I waited a long time and watched and listened and just realized this doesn’t make any sense.”
She decided that punishing students with exercise didn’t make sense either.
“They’re adults, we’re going to give them guns and badges and yet we treat them like 16 year old kids. We want them to develop a habit of being physically fit. I think when you use physical fitness as punishment it sends the wrong idea. Plus, it doesn’t support critical thinking. If they do something wrong, I want them to do a real life consequence,” she says. “For example, if they show up for class late, I want them to go have to stand up in front of the class and give a speech on why they have disrespected the rest of the group by making them wait. I think that leaves a greater impression than, ‘Drop to the floor and give me 20 pushups.'”
Some of the worst stories we hear about police officers involve disrespecting citizens, not treating them like human beings. Director Rahr wants to make sure that students leave the academy minus the power trip, and with a more human approach.
Fife police officer and trainer Russ Hicks thinks the new approach is necessary and he’s noticing changes.
“Things have morphed over the years with the war on drugs, the war on terror and our officers start acting more like soldiers and have this linear view,” Officer Hicks says. “I think if we go back to our foundation of treating people with dignity and respect and giving people their constitutional rights and not begrudgingly, but wholeheartedly embracing our constitutional role, I think things become very clear.”
Director Rahr says the new approach has been met with mostly positivity, but one major critique is that trainers are going easy on the students. She says that’s 100 percent not true.
“I just don’t think humiliation is a good way to train people,” she says. “There has to be a consequence. I want to be really clear. We aren’t relaxing the rules at all. We aren’t trying to make the academy easier or coddle people. But what we want to use is more real life consequences if they do violate a rule and we want them to think.”
She says, surprisingly, it’s not the ex-soldiers who bring the military mentality to the police force. It’s the guys who have played a few too many video games, like Call of Duty.
Part of the changes she made intend to show more respect to former military members.
“One of my favorite emails came from an officer who has been out on the street for about four years. He said, ‘I myself wasn’t in the military but two of my roommates were in the military.’ And he said it was just embarrassing because, ‘My two roommates had been through battle. They had both seen friends killed.’ I mean, these guys had been through hell and back. Here they come back as heroes with combat experience and they’re being treated like a kid. You know, ‘Drop and give me 20.’ And he said, ‘It was just embarrassing.'”
The academy feeds officers all over the state, so it will be interesting to watch and see how Rahr’s unique program affects the quality of new police officers.