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'Guardians of democracy': Police recruits learn to hold fire, empathize

Posted July 19

The erratic father, baby in his arms, screams at the police officers to get out.

The 40-something man with the quick temper has just punched and bloodied his brother-in law. Hearing the ruckus, concerned neighbors called the cops.

The officers quickly conclude they have ample cause to arrest the man -- and to do so forcefully. But he won't put down the infant.

So how should officers react when an already tense moment threatens to explode -- and an innocent child is caught in the middle?

The delicate situation is a mock scenario that police recruits confront at the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, near Seattle. The academy trains every police officer and sheriff's deputy in the state.

While recruits spend countless hours on weapons training and defense techniques, the academy also emphasizes de-escalation -- working to calm tense situations without using force. The strategy has drawn attention as social media and dashcam videos have revealed officers across the country taking extreme measures at times when they seem unwarranted.

In the case of the baby, the instructor advises recruits to try using "empathy" to get the suspect to calm down. It's a word heard a lot around here.

"Empathy doesn't mean you're sympathizing -- you feel sorry for people. Empathy means you can understand what their perspective is," said Sue Rahr, the commission's executive director.

'Guardians,' not 'warriors'

Rahr, the former sheriff of King County, took over the academy five years ago and immediately wanted to set a new tone.

The training regimen was overhauled to cast officers as "guardians," rather than "warriors." Future deputies are encouraged to see situations from the perspective of the victim -- or even the criminal suspect.

Simple personal interaction, Rahr teaches, often can be more effective than brute strength.

"I wanted to focus more on making sure that you're seeing that person they're interacting with as a human being," she said.

And she believes properly trained officers can defuse most any potential crisis.

But putting change into action required hard work.

One of Rahr's first moves was to remove a display case of police gear and weapons.

"I felt it was sending a message that policing is all about the tools of enforcement, and policing is much bigger than that," Rahr said. "I wanted to get the officers to see themselves from the very beginning as serving a higher purpose."

In place of the case, the academy installed a large mural of the Constitution. Graduates get copies of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, with instructions to always carry the documents it in their pockets.

A 'noble' profession

Rahr also eliminated the military-like atmosphere at the training center -- as at so many police academies across the country.

Recruits are no longer required to snap to attention when an instructor passes in the hallway. Instead, they're expected to initiate a conversation -- "to practice a skill that they needed in the field," she said.

Above all, Rahr aims to get recruits to appreciate the nobility of their profession. She calls them "guardians of democracy."

"What I'm trying to tell them is doing what good cops have always done: be noble, be honorable; you are serving and protecting your community," she said.

Not everyone is on board with the shift in tone.

Critic: basic skills ignored

"(It) really isn't the end-all be-all," said Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, who said he thinks Rahr is working off a false premise that law enforcement officers consider themselves "warriors."

State law, he points out, refers to cops as "peace officers," and the term has always been a key principle of law enforcement.

Meantime, while Rahr is stoking a cultural revolution, Knezovich said, the state's training center is failing to drill down on basics.

"We're so frustrated at what comes out of the academy because they can't write a report," he said.

Even so, Rahr's reforms caught the attention of community leaders across the country. For instance, she was part of Former President Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

Sensitive to criticism that her recruits might be too soft in dealing with criminal suspects, Rahr said she strengthened lessons in defensive tactics and weapons training.

Common sense is key

The academy changed its firearms program to include more close-quarters combat shooting, which replicates the environment in which most police shootings happen.

Rahr says the goal is for self-defense tactics to become so ingrained that they're second nature. Then officers can concentrate on how they interact with people and on defusing tense situations.

Much of what Rahr preaches is common sense, she said, though she readily admits it's something that often can be in short supply.

"It's extremely important that officers don't see the people in the community as something less than human," she said. "But I think we always have to be on guard because police have to engage in violent acts sometimes to protect themselves and protect the community."


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