Five years ago, Washington state’s police academy was almost empty.
But now the classrooms are bursting as police departments expand and baby boomers retire. And new leadership hopes to shape all these recruits into “guardians of democracy” in an effort to change police culture across the state.
On a recent afternoon, instructor Mark Best stood in front of a slide labeled “the road to respect.” Best told the recruits in his class to take the time to tell people why they’ve been pulled over.
“You will be amazed at how much more people will appreciate it,” he said. “Treat people like you would want to be treated.”
Each class of 30 recruits at the state police academy includes men and women in dozens of different uniforms – they’re wearing the insignia for the police or sheriff’s department that hired them and sent them here for training.
In the depths of the recession in 2008, there were just one to two classes at the academy at a time. Police departments weren’t hiring. Now training instructor Russ Hicks says that trend has completely reversed.
“We started slowly getting back up to three, maybe four classes in 2012, and then we saw a huge spike,” Hicks said.
Now there are up to 10 classes going at a time. These recruits are entering the profession as it comes under intense scrutiny nationwide. Hicks said that even before the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, the academy had reshaped its curriculum to focus on the connection to the communities being served.
“If we can stay focused on that, we won’t have people viewing themselves as ‘better,’ officers feeling that they’re elite, that they’re better than other people,” Hicks said. “We won’t have officers being afraid. We won’t have officers going off the rails and not treating people with respect.”
Academy director Sue Rahr arrived in 2012 after serving as King County sheriff.
Her curriculum describes police as the “guardians of democracy,” an idea emblazoned on walls throughout the academy. She said there has been too much emphasis on police as warriors in recent decades, outsider cops descending on communities. Rahr said politicians share the blame for that ethos.
“It didn’t happen in a vacuum, and it had tons of support from political leaders over the last three decades, because it’s very popular to talk about ‘tough on crime’ policies,” she said.
Earlier on, Rahr assumed that military veterans might bring a military mindset to policing. But she said one recruit made clear to her that’s not the case.
“He goes, ‘I’m a police officer because I’m done being a soldier; I want to be a guardian not a warrior,’” she said. “So that was a real eye-opener for me. I think people, as I did, misjudge and stereotype military veterans, and I have found them to be some of our very best recruits.”
Rahr has had a big platform for her ideas – last year she was named to President Barack Obama’s task force on 21st-century policing. Creating a “guardian mindset” was the group’s first recommendation. But as she recently told a class at the academy, there’s a lot of pushback in law enforcement.
“Right now there’s a lot of resistance because they don’t know what it is,” she said, referring to more veteran officers. “If you look at our Facebook page, sometimes I just want to stab myself in the eye.”
The comments run the gamut. Some say being a guardian is what good officers have done all along. Others say that Rahr’s “kinder, gentler” approach could get cops hurt or killed.
In the academy’s classrooms, recruits seem energized by these debates over the nature of policing. They eagerly discuss various scenarios and whether officers did the right thing.
Willie Jacobs is in training to join the King County Sheriff’s Office. He said he believes his class can maintain high ideals once the academy ends.
“We have a new generation,” he said. “King County and Seattle specifically are hiring a lot of people. Even within my class, you can the shift in the ideas that we have. We’re very specific on constitutional rights here.”
Those ideals are challenged in a room set up to look like a neighborhood bar. In this exercise, Jacobs and his partner are dispatched to cope with a drunk, belligerent patron and are warned the situation could get ugly.
“Hey how’s it going, sir? What’s your name, sir? I’m Deputy Jacobs with the King County Sheriff’s Office; this is my partner right here.”
The patron – a training officer in a padded suit– argues with them but puts up no physical resistance. The arrest goes smoothly. Instructor Hicks said going into a bar is a bit of a performance.
“Remember, if that was a bar full of people in there, they’re all watching you,” he said. “Think if you were sitting there with your family watching. You see two cool cops come in, totally respectful to this guy and then they brought him out. I’ve done this hundreds of times – people will clap.”
If the cops are rude, Hicks said, the crowd may take the drunk guy’s side, even throwing bottles. Hicks also reminds the recruits that people are quick to whip out their phone cameras when police approach.
“Now that everyone has phones, just for fun, just in case something’s good on there,” he said. “You don’t end up on YouTube for the good stuff, but that’s OK.”