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High profile examples of police officers escalating low-level incidents into major confrontations in Seattle, actions that put the city’s police department under a federal microscope and, ultimately, an expensive settlement agreement that mapped out sweeping reforms.
But excessive or improper use of force by law enforcement is not just a Seattle issue. If police officers are expected to apply force less often and more carefully, they have to be taught how, and that’s now a cornerstone of the curriculum at the Basic Law Enforcement Academy (BLEA), which is run by the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission in Burien.
It’s there that police departments from across the state send their new recruits for five months of basic training to learn everything from shooting mechanics to defensive tactics to employing de-escalation techniques.
And after years of training new officers to be “warriors,” the academy’s new goal is to train them to be “guardians of democracy.” Executive Director Sue Rahr said that’s because being an enforcer is only part of what an officer does.
“It’s one of the tools that they use to improve public safety, but it's not the only tool. If an officer sees himself only as a warrior he's more likely to use only those tools that a warrior would use. If an officer sees himself as a guardian, he is more likely to look a much broader set of tools to improve safety,” Rahr said.
Rahr took over as the training commission’s executive director two years ago, and she didn’t like what she saw.
“I was surprised by how militaristic the protocols had become in the academy, much more militaristic than 35 years ago when I came through,” she said.
Rahr went to work making changes. Recruits are no longer required to snap to attention when an instructor passes them in the halls. Rahr encourages more interaction between recruits and teachers and more discussion about “values and where our authority comes from,” she said.
Rahr removed a trophy case containing badges, batons and other “tools of the trade” from the lobby. In its place, she put up a mural of the U.S. Constitution.
“I want every recruit that comes through this academy to internalize the constitutional values of our society. And I think by keeping the trophy case up, with tools and that sort of thing, it detracts from the reason we have the mission we have. Putting the Constitution on the wall is instructive -- first it reminds us of where our laws come from, but secondly I want the recruits to focus on the higher purpose that they're serving,” Rahr said.
Rahr said for decades police have relied on a style of policing she described as “ask, tell, make” -- an aggressive approach that could needlessly escalate minor incidents into full-blown confrontations in which officers felt compelled to use force. There’s more emphasis now on teaching recruits something called LEED -- which stands for “listen and explain with equity and dignity.” Rahr introduced LEED to deputies in King County in 2011 when she was sheriff there.
According to Rahr, people are far more compliant if they feel they are being treated with respect.
“The science and research tell us that if you disrespect a person there is a chemical reaction that happens in the brain that will cause people to become resistive and uncooperative,” she said.
Rahr said there will always be situations where police have to use force, and sometimes that means deadly force. She insists officers are getting plenty of training in the physical hands-on skills they need to keep themselves and citizens safe. But she hopes eventually to see force being used less often in departments across the state and she expects to see fewer complaints against police.
“Officers need to be able to switch into that warrior mode in a split second, but they also need to be able to switch into the guardian mode, once the situation is under control,” she said.
Under Rahr’s leadership, the commission received a federal grant administered by the International Association of Law Enforcement Standards and Training to bring in the founder of a revolutionary program called Blue Courage: The Heart and Mind of the Guardian.
Michael Nila is a retired cop with 29 years on the force in Aurora, Illinois. He and his team spent two weeks in Burien last month training academy instructors on ways to blend the best of the “guardian” and the “warrior” as they train new recruits.
"We actually call that the blending of the heart and the fist. You know the fist is the ability to engage in battle and win when it's necessary, but the heart is the heart of a humanitarian who is here to serve and that's what Blue Courage is about,” Nila said.
Nila teaches deep breathing techniques to help officers set aside distractions, get laser focused and keep their cool in stressful situations. Nila talks about restoring the “nobility” of the profession -- exercising discretion and using what he calls “practical wisdom” as he or she enforces the law.
Nila’s been teaching Blue Courage to police around the country, but Washington is only the second state to incorporate the approach into statewide training. The first was in Arizona last November, so the results are still being measured.
“The strategic bet or the assumption is that (this training) will lead to less citizen complaints, less turnover, better health and wellness, and better life longevity for police officers,” Nila said.
The Blue Courage training at the Basic Law Enforcement Academy in Washington State is being done as a pilot study that will likely be incorporated into other states’ training if it’s deemed successful.
The changes aren’t happening without some pushback. When Rahr presented the concept to police chiefs and sheriffs around the state some criticized it as too “touchy feely” for a profession that often deals with the worst of society.
But academy instructors said that argument shows a misunderstanding of what’s going on. Instructor Reid Weaver teaches the mechanics of firearms and live fire exercises. Weaver spent 20 years in the Monroe Police Department before he went to Afghanistan to help train local police there. He supports the new approach to training police recruits.
“Giving people respect, being in the moment, not worrying about this or that, looking at the person, talking to the person, actually hearing what they're saying, there's nothing touchy feely about that,” Weaver said. “And if it makes you safer, and we get injured less and we injure less people, why would you not teach somebody that?”
Weaver said he’s training the Washington state recruits to be just as tough as their predecessors -- but to use their power with more discretion.
His message seems to resonate with the recruits.
Thirty-nine-year-old Elizabeth Kennedy is a Seattle Police Department recruit. Kennedy said she spent a decade as a prosecutor on the East coast before deciding to become a cop. She said the training she’s getting strikes just the right balance.
"It's ‘be smarter, not work harder.’ You want to use all of the skills you have, not just force, not just brute strength. You want to use your words, you want to use your mind, you want to use everything that's available to you and that's what they teach us here," Kennedy said.
Twenty-eight-year old Ricardo Cueva agrees. He’s a recruit from the King County Sheriff’s Office, which has had its share of incidents with deputies treating citizens disrespectfully or using high levels of force in questionable situations.
“For the most part, we need to try to de-escalate situations, and we can do that by trying to communicate with people instead of just going hands on,” Cueva said.
It’s a calculated bet. Rahr said she believes this kind of training will mean fewer officers crossing the line and fewer departments having the Department of Justice step in to demand reforms like what's happening right now in Seattle.
Recruits are still put through demanding and sometimes painful situations like they always have been. Near the end of their training, they attend the commission’s “OC Exposure” class where they get blasted in the face with pepper spray. As they cough, gag and fight through the pain caused by the spray, an instructor orders the recruits to demonstrate the take down of a violent suspect (using a dummy).
And that’s not all: Still with burning lungs and eyes, the recruits’ instructor drills them about the constitutional uses of force and requires them to recite specific Washington state laws about the legal use of force.
The officers must demonstrate that even under intense stress, they can still follow the rules. Because that's what a guardian of democracy does.