Just as not everyone who wants to be an astronaut is suited to the job, not everyone who wants to be a police officer in Washington has the right stuff. But if standards aren’t strong or aren’t enforced, problematic recruits become problematic cops.

Questions about how the state police academy screens recruits gained widespread public attention recently in light of a Seattle Times story about a Tacoma police officer who faces criminal charges related to the death of a suspect in his custody. In just his first year as a police officer, he faced two lawsuits alleging excessive force and a manslaughter charge.

He almost certainly never should have been given a badge and a gun. An instructor at the police academy had flagged him after a psychological breakdown during a training exercise in which he shot an on-screen unarmed suspect.

His instructor described the officer as entering “mental condition black,” in which reality becomes distorted and the ability to make rational judgments impaired. Afterward, the officer “emotionally shut down and was not listening to what I was saying,” the instructor wrote. “It was apparent that he did not value or care for the debrief. At this point I stopped trying to explain it to [the officer] because it was a lost cause.”

Sometimes trainees fail at an exercise, even catastrophically. That’s why they are trainees. The mistake is if they refuse to learn from that failure. The mistake compounds if they advance anyway.

The State Criminal Justice Training Commission, which oversees police training and certification, has the authority to remove trainees who exhibit psychological warning signs. They didn’t in this case, and a tragedy occurred. How exactly that happened remains an open question.


The commission’s staff is developing new policies for weeding out recruits who are mentally unfit to serve. If those new policies are strong enough, the commission should waste no time adopting them. Then it should ensure that they are rigorously enforced so that another lost-cause recruit does not become a lost-cause officer.

Preventing recruits from becoming police isn’t just sound policy because the public is clamoring for greater accountability and reform. It’s also a kindness to recruits. Better to divert them into another career before they advance into a stressful job where a breakdown will have tragic consequences all around.

The public places its highest trust in the police. They are empowered to enforce the law, arrest people and in extreme circumstances use deadly force. Officers should therefore meet the highest standards without exception, and the state police academy is the first line of defense.