Seattle recruits to learn about culture, history of communities they serve during new training
The "Before the Badge" program explores how people's experiences can influence how they react when a cop knocks on their door
By Sara Jean Green
The Seattle Times
SEATTLE — Before they learn anything about defensive tactics or de-escalation techniques, Seattle police recruits are now participating in a first-of-its-kind training program designed to acquaint them with the people they will one day serve and build their own resiliency to counter the stress and vicarious trauma they will inevitably experience as officers.
The Before the Badge program is part of the Seattle Police Department's response to the racial reckoning ignited by the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020, and the resulting demands that police nationwide reimagine how they interact with their citizenry, particularly communities of color that have historically experienced biased policing.
Recruits who have yet to attend the Basic Law Enforcement Academy, required for all entry-level officers in the state, are first learning the city's history and why there's been tension between Seattle police and different groups of residents — and how people's experiences can influence how they react when a cop knocks on their door.
"I do think this is an opportunity for us to really change how we're training our officers and how we're offering a level of support for our brand-new recruits," said SPD Chief Adrian Diaz, who came up with the idea for the pre-academy training program. "There's no one [else] in the country doing this work ... We want to push that envelope, we want to do something that I think is innovative, that actually changes how we police."
Recruits are attending community meetings and participating in discussions with people who've been incarcerated and struggled to reintegrate into the community. They're going on walking tours of neighborhoods and riding along with officers in each of the city's five precincts. And they're learning about psychology, brain development and the habits they can foster to keep themselves healthy in a profession whose members suffer from high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide, depression and alcohol and drug abuse.
The 45-day Before the Badge training is also being offered to the department's community service officers — known as CSOs — who respond to noncriminal calls for service and perform a variety of public safety-related community service and outreach work.
Roughly $1.5 million from the department's existing budget was used to launch the program in June. Mayor Bruce Harrell's proposed 2023 budget includes $446,000 to expand the program and hire a permanent program coordinator. The department has also applied for a grant through the U.S. Department of Justice's Community Policing Development Microgrant Program to further expand the Before the Badge training.
Recruits are currently participating in a series of weekly community police discussions via Zoom, with meetings set up for each precinct on Mondays through the end of November. Hosted by Seattle University, the meetings are a chance for them to learn about issues unique to the city's neighborhoods and give residents the opportunity to ask recruits why they wanted to become officers.
About 35 people — recruits, veteran officers and CSOs among them — attended a recent Zoom meeting with residents of the Southwest Precinct. Racism, implicit bias, vicarious trauma and how stress can lead to negative interactions were among the topics discussed, with recruits also revealing details of their personal lives.
One said he speaks five languages, worked with the U.S. military in Afghanistan and wants to "bridge the gap" between police and the city's immigrant communities. Another, who grew up in Tacoma, called herself "a DACA kid" from Mexico, a reference to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy protecting immigrant youth from deportation. Some grew up here, others came from out of state.
"I decided to be a Seattle police officer because I wanted to make a positive impact in my community," said one recruit, who has a young son and a second child on the way. "I wanted to work for a police department that values training, values diversity. One officer said this is the most diverse police department in Washington."
Another recruit from Phoenix said he could have worked for a police department in Arizona but wanted to work in Seattle because of the SPD's reputation for instigating changes that eventually get adopted elsewhere.
"From what I know about Seattle, it's very passionate, very progressive and people here want change," he said.
Four recruits will start their basic training at the police academy next week — and the first three recruits to go through the Before the Badge training are expected to graduate from the academy in early November. Four of the 24 recruits who've either taken the training or are going through it now are women. Nine are white, nine are Hispanic, three are Black, two are Middle Eastern and one is Asian.
"They really want to be the change," Victoria Beach, who chairs the Police Department's African Advisory Council, said of the recruits.
Beach, who is Black, said she witnessed Seattle cops beat up members of her family as she was growing up in the Central District and as a result, she came to hate the police. Her opinion started to shift after she became a Block Watch captain in the late 1980s and met officers in her neighborhood.
"I thought, 'You know, they're not all bad.' It just slowly started changing me," she said.
Now in her 60s, Beach said she's taken plenty of flak from family and community members for working with and publicly supporting the police. But Beach — who has taught the recruits about the relationship between police and Seattle's Black community and participated in the training alongside them — says progress is being made and she wants to focus on the future, not past trauma.
"They're going to all these different communities so that they'll know how to respond and act and treat people. It's mind-blowing, it really is. And it makes me emotional because this is what we needed long ago, this type of training," Beach said. "I think this is going to change policing in our city."
Sgt. Ron Campbell, an instructor in the Police Department's training unit, said the program is meant to teach recruits about the city and have residents meet and relate to them as people first. It also provides recruits the opportunity to meet Seattle police officers, learn about different units and roles and foster relationships with their future colleagues — all things Campbell didn't get when he was hired 22 years ago.
He said he went to the academy, completed his field training and was assigned to patrol the East Precinct, an area of the city he didn't really know.
"I was really just learning from officers who had been there before. You're not done when you go to the academy — you're really learning for the first three to five years," Campbell said of his experience as a young officer. "I made some connections in the community but I think I would have been a better officer if I would have had this education we're providing now."
He said Floyd's murder, which he is confident would never have happened in Seattle because of the department's policies and training, was a watershed moment for police nationwide.
"I want the community to understand that we do really care, we heard — the entire world heard — how pissed off they were," Campbell said. "We're trying to fix that and fix ourselves and maybe look at re-imagining ourselves and how we can interact differently."
After the chaotic summer of 2020, when protesters tried to burn down the East Precinct and occupied part of Capitol Hill, Campbell said Seattle police officers were forced to question their commitment to the city and their reasons for doing the job.
"Some people answered that by leaving," he said, referring to the 400 cops who retired or resigned over the past two years.
Campbell said he wants the public to know the Police Department is working to improve its culture and responsiveness to community concerns and expects it'll take a few years before the impact of the new training is seen.
"You have some great officers on SPD and I think they're a little burnt out with the staffing shortage, but give us some time and a little bit of grace and I think you're going to see a model for how the entire nation would hopefully police in the future," he said.