Some recruits at Washington state’s police academy have policing in their blood – their parents or grandparents were police officers. Stephanie Schendel is not among them.
“I don’t come from a law enforcement family; I come from a family of nurses actually, so this has been a lot for them,” she said.
Here at the academy in Burien – where most of the state’s police officers train for 19 weeks – Schendel, a former crime and courts newspaper reporter, is wearing the uniform of the Bellevue Police Department, where she’ll soon be working.
Becoming a cop as police protests dominate the headlines is tough, Schendel said, but in a way, invigorating. That's partly because the academy has a new curriculum, called Blue Courage, which focuses on the role police should play in society in addition to basic skills and legal issues.
For other recruits, run-ins with police in earlier years have left scars. Jack Phane, whose family is from Laos and Cambodia, is one of the relatively few minority people coming through the academy. He said his childhood affected his attitude toward police.
“Honestly, I did have the ‘I hate the police’ mentality, because that’s what I was raised around,” Phane said.
Instructor Russ Hicks asked Phane to tell his class about growing up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, when kids were joining Asian gangs.
“You shared a great story with us about being treated suspiciously growing up as a kid and how that made you feel. Could you share that story?” Hicks said.
“Yeah, I was just a kid in middle school, walking down the street with my friend,” he said. “We lived in a pretty bad neighborhood, and so a cop stopped us, and basically accused us of being gang members and told us we were up to no good. We were just walking to the park. So that definitely affected me for a long time until I had a positive contact with someone in law enforcement.”
When Phane was 16, a friend’s uncle, a police officer, became a role model and a mentor. Now Phane is on track to joining the Clark County Sheriff’s Office.
There’s been a lot of discussion about hiring more people from racial minorities, especially to police other minorities. But the academy’s executive director, Sue Rahr, said she doesn’t see much change in the demographics of police hiring, except that they’re a little older than in the past.
“In terms of the gender diversity and race diversity, it’s not that different than it has been for the last 30 years,” Rahr said. “What has caught my attention, though, is the diversity of life experience coming in the door.”
Rich Taylor, a recruit, smiled at that idea. “Life experience, life experience – I was just like, ‘Is that another way of saying you’re old?” he said.
Taylor, 44, is joining the Olympia Police Department. He spent the first part of his career working with juvenile offenders and foster families and concluded police work would pay better. Taylor said it’s a little strange to be surrounded by younger recruits. But his other jobs taught him valuable policing skills: To listen, to talk things through with people and to avoid physical confrontation.
“There are going to be some difficulties that these younger guys have that I won’t have,” he said. “Just because, one, when I step out of the car, just my age, my appearance, is going to get a little bit different perception that somebody may get with some of the younger kids.”
When Taylor decided to switch careers, his 12-year-old daughter was upset.
“It’s all the shooting, and police officers getting shot, and them being on the news for bad stuff,” Taylor said. “She just got real quiet when I talked to her about it, and I knew she wasn’t absolutely OK with it.”
But she came around. Taylor said he wouldn’t have taken this step without his family’s consent.
Recruits face a long hiring process. To get to the academy, they have already gone through months of extensive background checks, exams, mental health screenings, even polygraph tests and voice analysis.
Instructors say it’s almost impossible to find applicants with unblemished pasts, from driving infractions to drug use. What departments are increasingly looking for, according to instructor Russ Hicks, is "people who have learned from those experiences."