Last week I read an article in the New York Times Magazine about police training in Atlanta. It reminded me of my days in the Marines – not my 33 years in the police.
I spent a decade on active and reserve duty as a U.S. Marine. I was an enlisted man and went through a tough 12-week boot camp in San Diego in the late 1950s.. The things I were asked to do and bear made sense given my chosen occupation: I was to be a fighting man — to seek out, engage, and destroy an enemy
When I left the Marines and set off to become a police officer, I thankfully was trained as a police officer and not a soldier. That made sense to me as I quickly understood that there was a big difference between the two.
Now back to the Times story: it was about Jacob Mach’s journey to America from the Sudan. He was one of the 4,000 “Lost Boys” of the Sudan. After coming to America 12 years ago, he now was training to become an Atlanta police officer.
You can see the full video story HERE.
What I saw in this documentary was a questionable learning environment that both emotionally and physically stressed its students.
During my years as a police leader, I tried to teach other police departments the best way to go about preparing young men and women to become police officers. This was not one of them.
I stress in my book that police officers need to be college educated, well-trained, controlled in their use of force, honest, and respectful. The following is a story about one of my experiences teaching leadership and improvement methods to a large urban police department in the West:
“As I was setting up my classroom at their training academy, I looked out the window and observed a formation of their new police recruits. I decided to go outside and get a closer look. The recruits were standing in three ranks—it was an inspection, a situation I could easily relate to from my days as a Marine.
“Suddenly, the training instructors started yelling at the new officers. Some were ordered to do push-ups by way of the familiar military command: ‘Drop and give me ten.’ In addition, I heard the instructors calling the young officers ‘assholes.’ I returned to the classroom in time to greet the chief and his command staff. I introduced myself and the curriculum for the next three days, then asked, ‘Are your officers permitted to call citizens names?’ They seem shocked, ‘We have rules against doing that. Why do you ask?’
“’Well,’ I replied, ‘I was watching your new officers outside this window and observed your trainers calling them very derogatory names. You know, it really doesn’t matter if you have rules against such conduct because when their teachers call them names, they will think that it’s okay for them to do the same to citizens. And if you ever try to discipline them, their defense will simply be, ‘That’s what the department taught me.’”
“I recently learned that the department never did change. Their academy remains stress-based, military, and intimidating. I don’t know if their training officers ever stopped calling recruit officers names. But one thing I do know, is that if they don’t stop, I predict they will continue to have problems with officers disrespecting citizens. How could they expect any different kind of an outcome?…
“Half of our nation’s police academies train in an atmosphere police trainers themselves identify as stress-based; that is, intimidating, even bullying. This makes half of American police academies more like military boot camps or correctional facilities than places in which college-educated young men and women are prepared to be professional police practitioners…
“Today, many police departments still continue to run their training academies like boot camps. These departments have training officers who look and act like Marine Corps drill instructors. They even wear the familiar Smoky Bear hats of a Marine drill instructor. As I became more acquainted with police work, I couldn’t understand why police were using the same training model I had been subjected to as a Marine. There was no similarity whatsoever between being a Marine infantryman and a police officer—the two job functions were as different as night and day.
I found this documentary about police training in Atlanta to be very unsettling. I challenge the basic assumptions about the efficacy of this model. First of all, is it necessary to bully and abuse police recruits in order to teach them the skills necessary to be an effective police officer today? Do people learn better under encouragement than stress? I think we all know the answer.
Secondly, if the stress-based, boot camp style is a necessary part of police work, why aren’t the highly-valued physical fitness requirements required of all police officers during their careers, not just at the beginning? (In fact, the only skill that continues to be evaluated by most police departments is periodic firearms, and not physical fitness, qualification standards.)
The best argument against this method of teaching occurs in the documentary itself. It was when Mach was having trouble on the shooting range and we see two styles of teaching used on him: one by an aggressive and demeaning male instructor and the other by a nurturing female instructor. Which one was effective in helping Mach qualify that day? Of course, the instructor who acted in a helping and humane manner.
This kind of debasing treatment in one way or another continues as the primary training protocol in at least half of our nation’s police training academies. It must stop.
At the end of the documentary, Mach was dismissed from the academy. Thankfully, he found a job as an Atlanta city Code Enforcement Officer. Watching him work effectively in this new job tells me that given another kind of training environment he would be a successful police officer.
The other thing that troubles me is that while we, as a nation, are working to eliminate hazing and bullying in our nation’s schools and workplaces, we need to take a better look at how our recruit police officers are treated. Hazing and bullying does not teach anyone anything except how to haze and bully. And they are not the kind of things we want our nation’s police to know let alone be subjected to.
[UPDATE: More recently Sue Rahr, director of police training in Washington state made some important changes along the lines of this blog in 2015 in order to instill a “guardian” mindset (versus “warrior”) among her recruits and was included in the recommendations of the Task Force on 21st Century Policing.]