The Future of Policing: As protesters across the country demand sweeping changes to law enforcement, The Seattle Times is examining what that future could look like and the hurdles ahead. Today, police and law enforcement experts discuss whether changes in recruitment and training are necessary to change the way officers interact with citizens.
BURIEN — There were tight clusters of blue-clad police recruits chatting in the parking lot during a recent training break at the Washington state police academy in Burien, where the death of George Floyd was the topic front and center.
The protests and fury directed at law enforcement, and accepting that police have been “weaponized” against their communities, as one instructor put it, has been a hard reckoning for law enforcement across the country. Many of the mostly young, soon-to-be officers and deputies here have already been hired by small departments and don’t seem dissuaded from entering a profession facing hostility, profound scrutiny and change.
They see themselves as the solution to racism and violence in policing, not as part of the problem.
Their instructors hope so. But others in the field — particularly police scientists and academics who have railed about biased and brutal policing for years — doubt much will change without radical reinvention and sweeping alterations to the way departments recruit, train and equip their officers.
“It’s going to look exactly the same,” said Dr. Maria Haberfeld, a professor of police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Haberfeld has watched countless training models come and go — the “verbal judo” used by cops in the 1970s is “de-escalation training” today, she says.
“Where we are today is after 60 years of best practices and scholars talking about the same thing,” she said. “Nobody is listening.” Without something different — really different — Haberfeld believes nothing will change.
Seeking positive change
“We do need good officers,” said recruit Tessa Vanderpool, a 24-year-old Amboy, Clark County, native and Arizona State University graduate recently hired as an officer in Camas, just 35 miles south of where she grew up.
Vanderpool entered the state’s Basic Law Enforcement Academy (BLEA) with a class in January, but says she realized even before her decision to go into law enforcement that the profession is flawed and that racism and brutality pervade its ranks.
“I thought I could make a positive impact,” she said. “There are people who recognize the issue and want to be better.”
The Floyd killing in Minneapolis on May 25 and the shooting of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta on June 12 “are topics” among the recruits, she said. “Everybody has their own opinion,” she said. “But everyone is talking about how we can make a change and be better.”
That is the stated goal of the BLEA trainers overseeing Vanderpool’s class of recruits. But they know the system — they came up in it — and they know the pressures, and they know that even the best-intended recruit can wind up the focus of the next outrageous police-abuse video down the road.
“If you ask almost any recruit why they want to be a cop, they’ll say ‘It’s because I want to help people,'” said Sean Hendrickson, a former Las Vegas Metro police officer who now is the program manager for de-escalation training at BLEA. “I believe that it’s true.”
“But somewhere between that day and the pick-your-next-awful-video, we as a profession did that to that officer, made him that person,” Hendrickson said. “Institutional racism is a piece of that, and individual racism can be a piece of that. But make no mistake. We did it to him.”
All the good lessons and training provided at BLEA, which includes hours of de-escalation and less-than-lethal force training, can be stripped from a recruit by a bad training officer or a department’s “warrior” culture.
“Too often, the first thing they hear is, ‘Now, forget what you learned in the academy. Here’s how we do it,’ and that’s it,” Hendrickson said. Indeed, two of the four officers arrested and charged in Floyd’s death were trainees. The officer accused of kneeling on Floyd’s neck, Derek Chauvin, was a training officer.
As Haberfeld, the police science professor, put it: “A few weeks of implicit bias training isn’t going to make up for a racist attitude” of a bad department — or a bad recruit.
Hendrickson knows the system, and how it can undermine an officer’s best personal intentions. It happened to him while a young patrol officer in Las Vegas, where he said policing was about numbers, and an aggressive officer knew how to rack them up.
“I don’t consider myself a racist,” he said, yet he willingly participated in a system that targeted Black men, although he says he never thought of it in those terms until later.
“The 25-year-old me wasn’t thinking at that level,” he said. “I didn’t give it any thought at all. What I knew was that if I saw the right car with the right passengers, I’d find drugs or a warrant. ” More often than not, they were people of color.
“I’m ashamed of it now, but at the time I thought I was doing good,” he said.
It’s the very sort of conversation the academy and the Criminal Justice Training Commission, which oversees police accreditation, are focused on having now, said Jerrell Wills, the division manager at BLEA for applied skills in policing.
Wills, who spent 32 years with the King County Sheriff’s Office, is a Black man who, as a deputy, said he did the same thing when he worked patrol.
“I worked in the Black and brown community,” he said. “I thought I was protecting my community, my people. I said, ‘I’m going to do good, and to do that, I have to take the bad guy to jail.'”
He said that made him the kind of cop who would arrest someone and impound their car for driving on a suspended license, not ever considering that person might need that car to work to make money to pay the fine to restore that license; or that the driver might be the sole provider of a family somewhere. Many of those people were poor and of color — often the reason they’d been targeted in the first place.
“Today I know that all of that is part of the weaponization of law enforcement against these communities,” he said. “I thought I was doing good police work, and I was not. I feel sick about it.”
Hendrickson, the de-escalation expert, said he doesn’t believe policing will change significantly until “someone comes up with a better metric to determine what makes a good cop.” Because as it stands, he said, most departments continue to look at the numbers of arrests, and that drives the institutional racism.
Once it is decided what police should do and how, then Hendrickson said he and other trainers at the academy can design a curriculum to achieve it. While it might not seem it, police best practices have moved away from the “ask, tell, make” interactions to the sort of take-it-slow de-escalation model taught today.
Hendrickson said he was brought up in a department that believed overwhelming force resolved all problems. Now, he trains officers to work toward the “best possible outcome” in every situation they encounter, to listen and talk. De-escalation is much more than talking rather than shooting, he said. It’s about learning tactics aimed at giving an officer as much time as possible in any situation to make good decisions. Usually, that means slowing things down, and that’s rarely accomplished by rushing in and going hands-on with someone.
Training and equipment
Haberfeld, a former Israeli police lieutenant and an expert on police practices and training, said recruiting the right people and training them — not for a few weeks, but for a few years — is likely the only long-term solution to the endemic racism and use-of-force issues that have sullied the profession.
She believes the U.S. should look at training protocols in countries such as Norway and Finland, where police recruits go through as many as three years of school and training, along with an entire year as an observer, before they’re allowed on the streets.
In the U.S., the longest police academy lasts 32 weeks, Haberfeld said. The average amount of training a cadet receives is about 17 weeks.
In Washington, the Basic Law Enforcement Academy is 18 weeks, although some departments like Seattle build on that with several weeks of their own training before a rookie is assigned to a training officer and put on the streets.
By comparison, a cosmetologist in Washington must undergo 1,600 hours (40 weeks) of schooling and training for a license. A barber must have 1,000 hours (25 weeks), according to the state Department of Licensing website.
Who police departments recruit is also crucial, Haberfeld said, and American departments mostly do it wrong. A primary source for law enforcement recruiting in the U.S. is the military. Haberfeld thinks recruiting military veterans is a “horrible idea.”
“They recruit people who are trained to kill,” she said. “How do people trained like that belong on a civilian police force?”
Hendrickson and Wills see no problem with recruiting military veterans, who are often motivated toward service. But Hendrickson said the militarization of the appearance of police hardly lends itself to his model for de-escalation.
The last 50 years have seen police go from wearing a six-gun on a leather “Sam Browne” duty belt with handcuffs and maybe a baton to officers today in military-style jumpsuits, body armor and bristling with weapons. Those can include one, sometimes two handguns, several spare magazines, a Taser, pepper spray, a baton and a patrol car equipped with a shotgun or assault rifle.
The fact there are 330 million guns in private hands in America justifies having an armed police force, Hendrickson believes, but he would prefer officers had less hardware and were better trained with it.
“We already look imposing enough,” he said. “I think it sends the wrong message. We look like an occupying army, and when you think about it, we act like one too. Something happens, we swoop in, set up a perimeter, occupy an area, then leave again.”
Then there’s the reality of the militarization of police in Washington and elsewhere through a federal program that funnels surplus military material to law enforcement agencies. A Seattle Times review of data posted on the website of the Defense Logistics Agency, which runs the so-called “1033 Program,” indicates the state’s law enforcement agencies have received a steady stream of military hardware since the program was conceived in 1991 as part of the “War on Drugs.”
Over the years, state agencies have received hundreds of surplus military small arms, including M-14s, M-16s and handguns. Sixteen agencies have received armored mine-resistant vehicles. Other items include everything from cold-weather gloves and ammo cans to night-vision goggles and body bags. The total value of the material received by Washington police departments exceeds $35 million.
Former President Obama scaled back the program in 2014 in the wake of the protests following the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. President Donald Trump lifted those restrictions in 2017. Nearly a third of that $35 million worth of surplus military items entered Washington since 2016.
Correction: A previous version of this story contained inaccurate weekly totals for the amount of training required of Washington barbers and cosmetologists. One thousand hours equates to 25 weeks, not 250, and 1,600 hours equates to 40 weeks, not 400.