What I Didn’t Learn at Police Academy

The only people in America not debating race and policing while I trained as a cop were my instructors.

The following is an excerpt from the author’s new bookTangled Up In Blue: Policing the American City, which documents her four years working as a volunteer reserve police officer with the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department. 

The police academy curriculum was as striking for what it didn’t cover as what it did. For instance, we had eight units on vehicular offenses and one unit on use-of-force policies—but nothing at all on race and policing.

Our instructors occasionally talked about race, but only to insist that it didn’t matter. As one of the recruit sergeants—an African American former marine renowned for punishing recruits for minor uniform infractions—bellowed at us, “You graduate from my academy, you gonna go out there and treat people right! You the police. I don’t care if you got a rich white lady in Georgetown or a black drug boy in Southeast, you gonna put some respect on it! And I don’t care what color you are, black, white yellow, brown or purple. From now on you all gonna bleed blue!”

Citizens were citizens, and cops were cops. We were legally obligated to refrain from discrimination of any sort, and to assist all citizens who believed they were victims of hate crimes, a category defined in DC broadly enough to include crimes motivated not only by race, sex, religion and national origin but also by marital status, personal appearance, sexual orientation, gender identity or orientation, family responsibilities, homelessness, disability, political affiliation, and matriculation status.

Officially, we also didn’t study the demographic differences between Washington’s seven police districts, though those differences were obvious, stark, and the subject of much derisive commentary from instructors and recruits alike. We didn’t talk about how the city came to be so segregated, or discuss the impact of Washington’s growing gentrification on crime and policing, or ask why 80 percent of all arrests and 90 percent of drug arrests were of African American suspects in a city where black residents made up 47 percent of the population.

For that matter, we didn’t receive any information at all on overall crime rates, arrest rates, or patterns in crime and arrest rates. Theories of policing (the “broken windows” approach, “hot spot” policingcommunity-oriented policing, and so on) merited only a single paragraph in one of the early lesson plans, and we didn’t talk about what effective policing might look like. If the police did a good job, what would that mean? Was effective policing measured by a high arrest rate? A low crime rate? High levels of community trust? Did it require more cops, fewer cops, or cops who did different things? What kind of policing correlated with what kinds of outcomes?

Over-criminalization and over-incarceration were also never discussed. Throughout the United States, recent decades have seen a well-documented explosion of over-criminalization, at both state and federal levels. Minor civil infractions have been legislatively redefined as criminal misdemeanors, and numerous violations of complex regulatory codes have been criminalized—often creating brand-new and obscure crimes. At the federal level, there are now some three hundred thousand laws whose violation can lead to prison time; at the state level, a recent study found that Michigan legislators created an average of 60 new crimes a year during the six-year period the study looked at, while Oklahamoa created 46 new crimes a year, and South Carolina created 45 new crimes a year. But we didn’t talk about why so many trivial forms of misbehavior—particularly trivial forms of misbehavior more common among poor people of color than among affluent whites—were punishable by jail time, or about the potential relationship between our national fondness for inventing new “crimes” and the nation’s skyrocketing incarceration rates.

We didn’t discuss the fact that 19 out of 20 arrests in DC are for nonviolent offenses, or that the vast majority of people arrested for driving without a permit or after a license suspension are African American. We didn’t talk about the reasons Washington, DC, has the highest incarceration rate of any state in the country (in a country that has the highest incarceration rate in the world).

We also didn’t discuss the national controversies raging over policing, race, and use of force. All over the United States, people were talking about race and policing, police violence, and police reform. But virtually none of this conversation made it into the police academy’s classrooms. Recruits talked about it, of course, but mostly in the hallways and the lunchroom, and the discussions were hushed and awkward. About half of the new recruits at the Metropolitan Police Academy each year are African American; more than once, I heard black recruits offer a wry justification for their decision to join the police: “Why’m I here? Because the safest place for a young black male in this country is behind a badge.”

By now, we had watched so many officer-safety videos that most of us, regardless of race, could relate to the officers involved in those shootings. And by now, we had all been “killed” during scenario-based role-play practice sessions. We had been dispatched to mock calls and conducted mock traffic stops. Typically, we recruits would bumble around asking irrelevant questions or falling prey to intentional distractions. At that point, an instructor would pull out a training weapon and splat! Our backs or chests would be covered in bright-colored paint, and we’d trot off sheepishly to be debriefed on our fatal lack of paranoia.

Certain contradictions were baked into the training. Tactical officer safety dicta clashed directly with other precepts of successful policing. To maximize officer safety, you had to be decisive and react quickly. You were supposed to control the situation at all times. You had to watch the suspect’s hands and avoid standing too close. You were supposed to put drivers in stopped vehicles at a disadvantage by shining your lights into their mirrors. When you went into someone’s business or residence, you weren’t supposed to let a suspect sit on the sofa, or talk to you in the kitchen. You never let anyone reach into a place you couldn’t see.

But we were also repeatedly told to treat people with respect. A good officer, we were told, is a patient listener who shows empathy and establishes rapport. But it’s tough to show empathy or establish rapport when you’re staring obsessively at someone’s hands, refusing to let him sit down on his own sofa, or shining a bright light in his eyes.

Police departments worry about legal liability, and much of what did and didn’t find its way into the academy curriculum seemed to have been dictated more by liability concerns than by common sense. As a law professor, I understood: If an instructor told recruits to relax and stop worrying that every encounter could turn deadly and a young officer was subsequently killed because he didn’t take appropriate tactical precautions, his family could sue the department for failing to provide adequate training. On the other hand, if an instructor simply told recruits to use their own judgment whenever they felt any subjective sense of danger, MPD rules be damned, and a young officer subsequently shot an unarmed citizen, the department would be sued, too.

But no one was going to get sued or fired for reading a list of rules out loud. If the rules contradicted one another and pushed officers in conflicting directions, that was their problem. And if a lawsuit threatened, the department would be only too happy to throw us under the bus. Our instructors made this crystal clear.

This piece was originally published on Backbencher. 

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Rosa Brooks

Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown and the author of Tangled Up in Blue: Policing the American City.