BURIEN — A new class of recruits graduated from the state’s police academy Tuesday. They are among the first to have trained under a new system, one that abandons the militaristic “boot camp” approach and instead focuses on communication skills and engaging the community.
“We need to train them to think like leaders,” said Sue Rahr, director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission. “We shouldn’t be training them to think like a follower who just follows orders.”
Gone are the days when recruits are asked to stand at attention every time a ranking officer walks by or to drop and give someone 20 pushups if they do something wrong. Rahr, who served as the King County sheriff for seven years before becoming director of the state police academy in 2012, said the changes are going to create better cops and safer streets.
“When I would walk down the hallways and recruit officers would pass me, they would snap to attention and be silent,” said Rahr. “I thought, oh, that’s different. And so I started asking people, why do we do that? How does that help us train police officers?”
Rahr wants recruits to learn to look at people, not stare away with their eyes fixed. “I found it counterproductive,” she said. “One of the things we train officers to do here is how to communicate and engage with people and that is absolutely the opposite of what we want them to practice doing.”
Rahr has also abandoned the practice of recruits being punished with drills if they are late to class or commit some other misdeed.
“When we have that very strict military model, the dynamic that we are demonstrating is those without power must be silent and obedient and if they break the rules, there will be physical punishment,” said Rahr. “Why would we role model that kind of use of power? That’s not what we want officers to do on the street.”
New recruit Matthew Valdez entered the academy expecting a boot camp atmosphere. He’ll leave in a few weeks extremely happy with what he found.
“It was comforting to know that it was going to be relaxed a little bit and that I felt more comfortable in knowing that I could be in that environment and do more learning,” Valdez said.
Fellow recruit Brian Patenaude echoes the sentiment.
“I’ve never been timid or afraid to ask a question for fear of having to be, you know, put out in the pushup position or anything like that,” he said. “They want us to succeed as police officers.”
Academy trainer Russ Hicks is on the front lines of implementing Rahr’s new training vision.
“We could make them do anything we want,” Hicks said. “We could have them do pushups, we can brace them against the wall, but that’s a very shallow motivation. If we motivate them from within and we treat them with respect, I think that holds.”
Rahr says this new approach to training will help end many of the problems that police departments across the state have had with confrontational incidents and use of force.
“This isn’t just about being kinder and gentler and more polite,” Rahr said. “This is a better way to make the community safer, because you’ve got to build a connection with the people you are protecting and serving, and even the people you may be taking enforcement action with.”
Rahr admits that there are some who have resisted her new approach to cop training. But the vast majority have embraced it, she said.