Wash. police academy eyes removing more recruits who show red flags
The proposed change was prompted after an officer, now facing charges for an in-custody death, exhibited signs of a mental breakdown at the academy
By Patrick Malone
The Seattle Times
TACOMA, Wash. — The state agency that oversees training and certification of police officers moved on Wednesday to more aggressively remove recruits from the state law enforcement training academy when they show signs they're psychologically unfit.
It was prompted by a request from advocates for police reform, who cited a Seattle Times story about a Tacoma police officer facing criminal charges for an in-custody death after he exhibited signs of a mental breakdown at the academy.
In her submission to the state Criminal Justice Training Commission, Joyce Brekke, with the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability, noted the Times story that revealed one of the three Tacoma police officers facing criminal charges for the March 2020 death of Manuel Ellis was the subject of a memo from the academy to the Tacoma Police Department.
In it, his instructor described officer Timothy Rankine lapsing into "mental condition black," a state of distorted perception that negatively affects judgment. During the December 2018 exercise, Rankine "overreacted" by shooting an unarmed virtual suspect, then shut down and tuned out criticism, according to the instructor.
Two experts who reviewed the memo at The Times' request said it was alarming and could be indicative of past trauma Rankine experienced as a combat veteran. They questioned his psychological fitness for police work based on the memo.
Despite the memo, Rankine graduated from the academy, and was hired by Tacoma and deployed on patrol. In just 13 months of active duty, he was the subject of two lawsuits alleging excessive force, including one from Ellis' family, as well as a manslaughter charge, a very uncommon charge for an officer to face.
Rankine has pleaded not guilty. The Tacoma Police Department is delaying its internal investigation into Rankine and the other officers until their criminal trial is complete. They remain employed by the department on paid leave.
[RELATED: Wash. PD warned about recruit's 'unjustifiable' shooting in simulation before death of Manuel Ellis]
Executive Director Monica Alexander said the commission already has authority to remove recruits from the academy when they demonstrate that they are mentally unfit for the job, and has at times. The academy graduates about 560 recruits a year.
But members of the commission, which includes law enforcement personnel and reform advocates, questioned why the commission's authority to remove recruits who show signs of psychological unfitness wasn't applied to Rankine.
"If the standards already exist to remove people, why did this officer graduate from the academy after we found it so important to notify the [ Tacoma] police department about the behavior?" asked Commissioner Bart Logue, police ombudsman for Spokane.
Alexander noted that the memo about Rankine predated her tenure, and therefore she couldn't answer Logue's question.
Commission chair De'Sean Quinn, a member of the Tukwila City Council, said Alexander is correct that the Criminal Justice Training Commission, or CJTC, can kick out recruits on psychological grounds. "That process does exist and it's consistent with the policies," he said. "This one, it was missed."
Commissioner Tim Reynon, an attorney who serves on the Puyallup Tribal Council, said the commission needs to underscore the academy's authority to remove recruits who've demonstrated cause to doubt that they're mentally fit to graduate.
"We don't want to see that happen again," he said, referring to Rankine. "And if we have the authority to prevent that from happening in the future, I think that's what we're trying to codify."
Commissioner Nickeia Hunter, an NAACP activist from Vancouver, Washington, who formerly belonged to the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability, an advocacy group that includes families of people who died in police custody, introduced the proposal to have staff draft rule-making changes that address mental health concerns at the academy.
Hunter said trainers at the police academy have unique insights into recruits' barriers to success, as Rankine's trainer who wrote the memo demonstrated. Hunter spotlighted the rule governing CJTC that enables it to adapt standards at the academy and grants the commission authority to establish rules and minimal standards for "physical, moral and psychological fitness."
The commission has its hands full implementing a broad set of reforms passed in the wake of the racial justice protests of 2020. The changes allow decertification of officers for past misconduct, and stricter standards to avoid conflicts of interest for investigating killings.
On Wednesday, for example, the commission debated intricacies of a rule that will limit who police officers can communicate with at the scene when an officer uses fatal force.
Commission staff is expected to draft language clarifying authority to remove recruits whose behavior has raised concerns about their mental fitness as part of a massive curriculum update that is already underway.
"It's going to develop testing and measurements that are far more robust, and they are very specific to things such as dignity, communication, ethics," said Christine Rickert, an assistant commander at the academy.
Language for the proposal to codify the academy's authority to remove recruits with psychological barriers to success is expected to be ready for the commission's review in late January.
"I would much rather deal with a problem ahead of time than after someone loses their life ..." Commissioner Logue said. "If they find something so egregious that they put it down in a memo, we've really got to take that seriously ahead of time."
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