At police academy, recruits learn to confront implicit biases, get to know communities
At the Connecticut Police Academy, recruits are learning to do much more than catch criminals and solve crimes. In the classroom and in the field, recruits are being challenged to acknowledge and confront their implicit biases, master de-escalation tactics and become informed, trusted members of the communities they serve, long before they're given a badge and a gun.
To become a police officer in any municipality in the state, recruits must complete more than 900 hours of training at the academy in Meriden, followed by 400 hours in the field with the department that hired them.
The Police Officer Standards and Training, or POST, Council, the body that runs and oversees the academy, requires recruits to receive training in de-escalation, use of force, fair and impartial policing and morals and ethics. Once an officer graduates, they're certified for three years, during which time they are required to complete 60 hours of in-service training to get their recertification.
In light of nationwide protests condemning the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, activists across the country have called for police reform and many police departments have responded by reviewing and amending their policies.
Police Academy Administrator Karen Boisvert said that after seeing the video footage of Floyd's death, the POST Council immediately took a hard look at its curriculum, which is due for a full review by the end of the year.
"We wanted to make sure that what happened in Minnesota won't happen here," she said.
One important area of study for recruits is fair and impartial policing, said Boisvert, which involves acknowledging and confronting their impartial biases.
The goal of the six-hour course — added to the curriculum five years ago — is to teach officers that impartial biases might exist, and that's OK but it's not acceptable to act on them.
Joann Peterson, a retired captain from the New Haven Police Department who has been teaching at the academy for seven years, teaches the course on fair and impartial policing, and said she prides herself on talking about uncomfortable topics with recruits.
The best way to confront implicit biases, she said, is to recognize them and break them down. She helps recruits learn from one another, have tough conversations and prepare for real-life scenarios by role-playing.
In Peterson's course, recruits participate in exercises in which they're asked to identify who they think a suspect might be, or who they think might be carrying a weapon and why — in an effort to challenge stereotypes based on race, body size or gender. "The whole idea behind having implicit bias is that we can overcome them to do fair and impartial policing, because otherwise we're doing unjust policing and unsafe policing," she said.
When explaining biases and stereotypes, she likens it to being a police officer — she reminds recruits that they come from all over and from all different backgrounds, but "now, they're going to be seen as blue."
"Do you want to be judged by what happened to George Floyd?" she asks them. "We should be judged as individuals, just like everybody else wants to be judged by who they are, not by the color of their skin."
Peterson said her course tackles biases toward different races, genders, sexualities, religions and socioeconomic and housing statuses. She hopes the program continues to expand and that veteran officers, and recruits, continue to receive refreshers on the topic.
Know your community
Another way the POST Council is trying to improve relations between residents and law enforcement officers is by emphasizing the importance of community engagement early on in each recruit's training.
Before they're sent in the field, recruits are tasked with researching the demographics, strengths and struggles of their towns and cities. This new project, which launched in March, helps officers understand the particular economic and societal issues residents they serve might be experiencing, Boisvert said.
Marc Fasano, who took on the role of director of basic training at the academy in March, launched the new project with his first class of recruits and is continuing it with his second class, which started training in June.
"When I came in as director, I wanted recruits to start looking at their role in society from a local level, regional level and state level," he said.
Recruits are required to write an essay about their community, the law enforcement agency that hired them, the style of local government and the racial makeup of the area and explain why they are choosing to work there. They also look at the region the town is in — examining things like the differences between Norwich and New London, Stonington and Groton, he said.
Most training is being held virtually at the moment due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Fasano said the goal is to have recruits present what they learn to the rest of their class, in an effort to teach recruits about a diverse set of communities.
"Ultimately the goal is to open up their minds to what they can do to improve community relations," he said.
Getting to the heart of the issue
In 2019, the academy also started hosting community involvement days and nights, giving recruits from all over the state a chance to meet with representatives from organizations in their communities — like the NAACP and ACLU — to encourage positive relationships and open up a dialogue.
Getting to know the community goes hand in hand with teaching recruits to de-escalate tense and potentially dangerous situations, a main focus at the academy. Boisvert, who retired from the force as a lieutenant after 20 years with the Hartford Police Department, said the POST Council recognizes that recruits need to learn how to work with people who are in crisis.
Police officers often encounter people who are dealing with difficult things, she said.
"It's an emotional, vulnerable part of their lives and being able to go in there and troubleshoot and help them get what they need is a critical part of our jobs — life is hard for some people and we're not here to make it harder," she said. "We're there not only to assist to try to resolve the conflict but to get the services needed to help, whether it's children having problems or financial problems, our job is to go in and de-escalate the situation and get to the heart of the issue."
By knowing what services are available in the community, Boisvert said, police officers can offer more assistance and help strengthen their communities.
"Community policing is who we are, we're here to help and we're here to serve. As a police officer — and we stress this in the academy — you should know your community. You're there as a public servant and the only way to know and serve your community is to get involved," she said. "We do have an enforcement role but by and large we're also members of that community, even though we wear a uniform."
Basic training for new recruits also includes four hours of de-escalation training that focuses on "active diffusion strategies" meant to help officers recognize indications of hostility and aggression, learn techniques for de-escalating and distracting agitated persons and define concepts of "customer service" in law enforcement.
Future troopers at the Connecticut State Police Academy undergo similar training.
Connecticut State Police did not respond to requests for comment on training policies, but directed The Day to the "transparency portal" on the agency's website, which includes a basic outline of the training troopers receive.
According to the portal, state police recruits undergo more than 1,500 hours of training to become a trooper over six months at the academy, where they are taught in a classroom setting and engage in weeks of scenario-based dynamic situations.
To graduate from the academy, future troopers are required to take courses in initial effective communication strategies and de-escalation techniques. Troopers are required to return to the academy and complete multiple in-service trainings, including on bias crimes, fair and impartial policing and use of force, to remain certified.
Executive order issued
On June 15, Gov. Ned Lamont issued an executive order in response to Floyd's death that recognized Connecticut's Colonial origins and history of slavery and said the state "has long struggled" to provide equal protection of the law and freedom to persons of color.
The governor said a "disproportionate number of law enforcement activities, including uses of force, are directed at black men and other people of color" throughout the state's history and today, and said "much more work remains to be done" to make equality and freedom a reality, including a need to address police accountability and structural racism.
The executive order addressed state police, ordering them to ban chokeholds and appoint one or more troopers from each troop as community trust liaisons.
The order also requires all troops to update their use of force policies no later than Oct. 1, 2020, to include language that requires troopers to de-escalate situations when possible before using force; provide verbal warnings and exhaust all options before using deadly force; and requiring troopers to intervene to stop other law enforcement officers from using excessive force.
On June 30, the Connecticut State Police Union penned a letter to Lamont, saying there was "disappointment and confusion" from state police in response to the order.
Executive Director Andrew N. Matthews, in the letter, said, "what the Executive Order fails to explain to the public is that the majority of your orders are already required and practiced by the State Police and, in most cases, have been for decades." He also noted that state police have "prohibited chokeholds for more than 30 years."
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