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New WA police recruits will be trained on black history, civil rights, to prevent bias

A line of police officers surrounding City Hall on Wednesday, June 3, 2020, in Seattle, look towards demonstrators following protests over the death of George Floyd. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Every year, the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission puts more than a thousand new police and correctional officers through a five-month mandatory training program. Executive director, and former King County Sheriff, Sue Rahr says they’re putting the finishing touches on a new program focused on race, and designed to help with bias.

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“We’ve got the curriculum in development,” Rahr said. “It’s probably one of the most interesting, exciting things that I’ve been working on for the last couple of years. As soon as the COVID thing hit, we had a team that was going back to Washington, D.C., to work with members of the National Museum of African American History and a team from Washington DC Metro [Police].”

“The focus of the program is to supply recruits with information that most people don’t get in public schools about the history of race and policing,” she continued. “We start with slavery and talk about how systemic racism developed over the course of United States history. We talk about slave patrols, the Fugitive Slave Act, the Jim Crows laws, the Civil Rights Act.”

A police officer for decades, Rahr says learning the history has made huge shifts in her perspective. She believes policing has to change.

“The only real metrics we have for measuring performance is how many people you’ve arrested,” she detailed. “We had awards for who made the most felony arrests, who made the most misdemeanor arrests. It became like a game.”

“So what I learned through experience is when I see a car that looks like it’s pretty old and beat up and it’s driven by a bunch of young men who look like they might be criminals, if I pull that car over there’s a pretty good chance one of them is going to have a warrant,” she said. “If I pull that car over and arrest that person for a warrant, I’m rewarded for making that arrest. I never thought about: was the reason that person has a warrant fair and equitable?”

“The research on this topic is very, very clear. People who are black and white tend to abuse drugs at the same rate. But the people who have darker skin are arrested at a higher level because, my generation of law enforcement, that’s who we paid attention to,” Rahr added. “That fed the system and reinforced the biased thinking that we have about who commits more crimes and who doesn’t.”

Rahr says she’s embarrassed to admit that it took her decades to see that simply pulling someone over can destroy the rest of their life.

“I was horrified at my lack of knowledge about what really happened in this country, historically,” she said. “It completely changed my perspective on things. And then I started looking at what happens in prosecution.”

“About 98% of the cases are plea bargained because it’s just too expensive to provide everybody with a jury trial. In order to get people to agree to a plea bargain, a widespread practice across the country has been for prosecutors to charge at a very high level. So the person who is charged is so fearful of a conviction, they will plead to a lesser charge. If you’re a person that’s worried about facing a 10- or 20-year prison sentence, all of a sudden pleading to a lesser charge for six months in jail seems like a pretty good deal.”

“But here’s the problem with that — once the person pleads guilty, they now have a criminal record for the rest of their life,” Rahr said. “They’re also saddled with fines and fees. This is something I knew nothing about. We have people coming out of jail that have $5,000 to $25,000 of fines hanging over their head. They can’t get public assistance, housing, education grants. It’s very difficult for them to find a job just to survive.”

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“Once a person gets into the system, it’s very difficult to get out. I didn’t understand this when I was a police officer. I had no empathy when I ran across a person who had a criminal record. I believed if you have a criminal record, you are a criminal. So my level of caring about what’s going to happen to you after I arrest you is diminished,” she said. “The new officers coming into our profession, I’m trying to prevent them from having that lack of understanding and lack of empathy. I want them to understand the whole picture. ”

Rahr says thanks to grants from Microsoft and the state Legislature, they’ve been working on another new training program directed at chiefs and sheriffs. By the end of summer, they’ll be offering the 21st Century Police Leadership program to all police departments in the state. She says it gives leaders the tools to self-reflect and reconsider the current police culture.

“It’s going to take very courageous leaders to say, ‘You know what? I think that we can do this better.’ I also want to be really, really clear that there are a lot of progressive thinking chiefs and sheriffs that already do this really well,” she said.

Rahr says there are about 18,000 police departments in this country and they are designed to have autonomy. It’s up to each individual department to choose to reform.

Listen to Rachel Belle’s James Beard Award nominated podcast, “Your Last Meal,” featuring celebrities like Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, Rainn Wilson, and Greta Gerwig. Follow @yourlastmealpodcast on Instagram!

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