The Washington State Patrol will conduct a broad investigation into alleged cheating among recruits at the state police academy in Burien, the academy’s top official said Monday.
“Restoring public trust is going to be our highest priority now,” said Sue Rahr, executive director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, which runs the academy.
As many as 60 recruits in two current classes at the Basic Law Enforcement Academy potentially shared information from an unauthorized study guide that included test questions and answers for multiple written exams, according to the academy’s preliminary investigation.
But the practice might have been going on for several years in past classes whose graduates now work for law-enforcement agencies throughout the state, the academy said.
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Rahr said she asked the State Patrol to take the lead in the investigation to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest and to ensure transparency and objectivity. Officials at the academy will assist, she said.
Rahr said the State Patrol also has experience running its own academy, which operates separately from the state training center where police and sheriff’s agencies send recruits they have screened and hired.
Officials at the state academy learned Thursday of the alleged cheating, when one recruit came forward and reported that students in two of three current classes were sharing material from a computer thumb drive — a small, portable data-storage device — containing information from the study guide.
Rahr said a second recruit assisted the first in bringing forth the breach.
Although some materials on the thumb drive date back several years, Rahr said it isn’t known how long the material has been circulating or how many recruits purportedly used it to cheat, versus those who knew about the practice but didn’t report it.
“This may take awhile,” Rahr said of the investigation.
Recruits at the academy train in a pressure-packed environment in which failure can derail their career ambitions.
In a statement, the academy said it has taken immediate steps, including rewriting all of its tests and requiring recruits in the two classes to pass a newly created comprehensive test in order to graduate.
But recruits could be dismissed for serious rule violations and sent back to their respective agencies, who hold sole authority to impose discipline up to termination, the statement said.
Recruits who are dismissed may not return to the academy for three years and cannot work as a police officer without successfully completing the training, making it unlikely their agencies would keep them.
Law-enforcement agencies with a recruit currently enrolled in training have been informed of the investigation and will be told the results, according to the statement.
If investigators determine the study material has circulated in past classes, agencies where the graduates now work will be notified, the statement said.
In that case, only the agencies would have authority over their employees, and they would decide whether to take further steps, including internal investigations.
Recruits likely used the confidential information to narrow their studies and memorize material they knew would be on a test, according to the statement.
But the written exams are only the first in a series of practical tests recruits must master, the statement said.
Once recruits prove their proficiency on initial written tests, they must demonstrate their classroom knowledge through actions carried out in mock scenarios.
After graduating, recruits further undergo three to five months of field training with their agencies, the statement said.
“It is highly unlikely that this compromise of testing materials would enable an unqualified candidate to become a police officer,” the statement said.
Rahr said the academy will no longer give the same tests to each class.
In announcing the cheating investigation, the academy said it was in the process of buying a software program commonly used in higher education that generates new tests for each class with randomly selected questions.
“We should have done this sooner and I regret that,” said Rahr, the former King County sheriff who was hired last year to oversee the academy and the training commission.
She expressed deep disappointment in recruits who used the unauthorized materials or knew about it and didn’t come forward.
The scandal comes at a time when Rahr has pushed dramatic changes at the academy, shifting it from what she terms a warrior approach to a guardian mentality.
Recruits are still taught the basics of police work, but with less military protocol and more emphasis on employing de-escalation techniques, adhering to constitutional requirements and treating citizens with respect and dignity.
The Seattle Times chronicled the changes in a July story, focusing on one class as it underwent 19 weeks of training between January and May.
The cheating investigation is expected to include recruits in the class, although no evidence has emerged to show their involvement.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @stevemiletich