A group of 30 police recruits, five of them new hires with the Seattle Police Department (SPD), gathered in the lobby of a building on the Burien campus of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission (WSCJTC) on Monday night for an informal graduation ceremony, devoid of the usual pomp that accompanies police-academy graduations.

Class 798 graduated 1 1/2 weeks early, just before WSCJTC Director Sue Rahr announced the shutdown of the police training academy for at least the next four weeks because of the novel coronavirus outbreak. The nearly 36-acre campus, which includes classrooms, a running track, a gun range and a mock city, is where new police officers from 300 Washington law-enforcement agencies receive basic training and veteran officers receive advanced training in everything from crisis intervention to interviewing victims of sexual assault.

It’s not yet clear how the commission’s 30-day closure will impact police departments working to grow the number of available officers, and much will depend on when public-health officials determine it’s safe enough for large groups of people to gather again. Schools and libraries across the state also have closed in the wake of the virus’ outbreak, and this week, government officials ordered bars and restaurants to shutter except for delivery or take-out in an effort to slow the virus’ spread.

There’s usually around 500 people on the WSCJTC campus at any given time, and the closure is in response to Gov. Jay Inslee’s order barring large gatherings, Rahr said Tuesday. Advanced training classes were suspended last week, including a seminar on bias and perception that had been attended by more than 100 police officers.

“We’re pushing pause,” said Rahr, who served as King County Sheriff for eight years before becoming WSCJTC director in 2012. “This is a difficult balancing act — getting new officers on the street and keeping trainers and recruits healthy so they get to the street.”

It would be irresponsible to carry on with training as usual and risk new and veteran officers getting sick, which Rahr said would further delay graduations and keep veterans from working in their communities.

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“I want to assure the public this isn’t catastrophic. It’s inconvenient, but we’re trying to stave off a crisis,” she said. “We know as the virus spreads, there will be other problems in the community. We need healthy cops available to respond.”

In addition to the 30 recruits in Class 798, who received accelerated training to allow them to graduate just short of the usual 19 weeks, there are another 210 recruits — 35 of them hired by SPD — in the pipeline, Rahr said. One class is three weeks shy of graduating, and Rahr said commission staff are working with the police agencies that hired them to see how they might cover necessary material those recruits haven’t yet learned at the academy.

At the same time, Rahr said WSCJTC staff, who are now working from home, are trying to move classroom instruction online. But the question remains of how to offer classes in subjects like defensive tactics, which require physical interaction between trainers and recruits.

On Feb. 24, SPD  announced a neighborhood billboard campaign aimed at building on a record hiring year in 2019 that saw 108 new officers added to the force of just over 1,370 officers. But the new hires were offset by 92 departures, including retirements and resignations, for a net gain of 16. At the time of the announcement, the department hoped to hire 104 more officers by the end of this year.

Five days later, on Feb. 29, public-health officials announced the first death in King County — and the nation — from COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new virus, SARS-CoV-2. Since then, more than 1,000 people in Washington have contracted the virus and 46 of 55 deaths in the state have occurred in King County.

“I don’t know if there’s going to be an impact for us,” SPD spokesman, Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, said of the WSCJTC’s closure on his department’s hiring goals.

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SPD has five slots in each class of 30 at the training academy and hires recruits three to four weeks in advance of the start of classes, said Mike Fields, the department’s executive director of human resources.

“The goal is to get through this difficult period, work with the academy closure — which is a choke point for us — and continue with our aggressive hiring program for the year,” Fields said. “It’s early days. We have folks hired and ready to go and will continue to monitor the situation.”

Rahr said she’s seen hundreds of classes of officers graduate from basic training at the WSCJTC in her time as director — but Class 798 will be one she’ll always remember.

“I can’t think of a more informal ceremony,” she said of Monday’s graduation, adding police recruits usually march in uniform into a packed auditorium and have their badges pinned to their chests by someone important to them. “It’s a learning opportunity for these recruits. They’re going into a profession where a moment changes everything.”

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