In 2001, a young, recently retired Marine with the build of a football tight end sat in the Las Vegas Metro Police Training Academy with 60 others who, in less than half a year, would likely join the force of 2,100 sworn officers. It was his first day.

An instructor walked to the front of the class with his shoulders back and his chest out — a man who looked like a cop through and through, the young recruit thought. “If you graduate this program in five months,” the instructor yelled, “the badge we pin on your chest represents the fact that you are the fucking man in this valley.”

As the instructor spoke, he pointed at the young ex-Marine — and the recruit felt empowered. He thought: “Yeah, I’m the man.”

He was even more impressed when the instructor introduced another doctrine: “You don’t take shit from anybody.” It was a matter of officer safety, the instructor said.

Over the next five months, as the young man went through defensive tactics and firearms training, those doctrines — “you’re the fucking man” and “don’t take shit from anybody” — were echoed time and again. He also learned another: Ask. Tell. Make.

When you come into contact with a person, you ask them to do what you want them to do, he was instructed. If that doesn’t work, you tell them to do it. And if that doesn’t work, you make them do it.

These were the principles of policing, the young man learned, and he took them to heart.

But that was just training. On his first day as a young Las Vegas Metro police officer, he got into a car with his field training officer. The young officer sat in the passenger seat and the training officer looked at him. “You understand one thing and one thing only,” the training officer said. “Your job today is to keep me alive. You don’t take shit from anybody. You’re the fuckin’ man — you got it?”

“This is real,” the officer realized. And that excited him.

Many new officers, when they’re new to a police department, work the graveyard shift — the least supervised shift at any department — and the young officer was no different. He, in fact, worked with six others who had graduated by his side at the academy. They were regarded as one of the most successful squads: They brought in the most drugs, guns, and bad guys in the valley.

But that came at a cost. The young officers regularly used intimidation and excessive force; they violated the rights of citizens. The young officer fought with a lot of people, just to prove his worth on the street.

In his first three years, the young officer was continually flagged by the department’s so-called “Early Warning System” — an internal affairs program that identifies problem officers. But it didn’t matter. Every six months, his sergeant — almost jokingly — told him that the Internal Affairs Department wanted to see him. And like clockwork, the internal affairs officers asked him a few questions, and then sent him on his way without any consequences.

Nobody cared, the officer knew because he and his fellow squad-mates were the men in that valley: They led the department in felony arrests, and it did not matter that they also led in citizen complaints.

Then, in 2004, the young officer and four of this fellow squadmates’ private behavior went public. They made headlines when they were accused of nearly a dozen instances of misconduct, including excessive force, lying on the job, and wearing t-shirts with a slogan that allegedly mocked a police shooting victim. While some of his squadmates faced termination, the young officer was suspended for 20 hours for relatively peripheral involvement.

But there were still consequences. One morning shortly after his suspension, the officer returned home from his infamous graveyard shift to find his wife and two children sitting on the couch. His wife was crying. “I can’t do this anymore,” she said. “This is not what I signed up for.”

She told him that she couldn’t recognize the man standing in front of her. “I don’t even tell people you’re a police officer,” she said. “I’m embarrassed to tell people what you do.”

She also told him she was leaving. He could go back home to Washington state with her, but he needed to join a small police force and he needed to live in the town where he worked. The young officer agreed. They settled on Battle Ground, Washington, where the officer would join a force of 25 cops.

He soon realized that the policing principles he learned in Las Vegas did not apply in Battle Ground. He was told many times that he could not be confrontational with citizens — and he realized that he could run into those very citizens at the grocery store. Battle Ground, after all, had a population of no more than 20,000 people.

After fits and starts — he was placed on probation for being rude to a man during a traffic stop — the officer slowly changed. He could not enjoy the anonymity he had in Las Vegas, and it was his first true dose of accountability. He eventually realized that he was a member of the community he served. Not above it or special to it — just a guardian to it.

Illustration by Lola Noguer

Officer Sean Hendrickson paced back and forth in front of a class of 30-odd new trainees at the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, a facility responsible for training the majority of sworn officers in the state of Washington. This was a recent Wednesday morning, and Hendrickson had just told his story.

“As crappy of a police officer I was in Las Vegas, I was a good officer in Battle Ground — and nobody would argue with that,” Hendrickson told the class. But “I had to learn it on my own, and it took me six years of police work to do it.”

The classroom full of police recruits sat, rapt.

Hendrickson’s story of redemption is now a key ingredient in what some observers are calling a radical new way of training police officers. It was only a prelude to a broader lesson that cops must be guardians, while continually negotiating their dual roles as warriors and philosophers through empathy and emotional intelligence. This was discussed by way of Plato’s Republic (which Hendrickson has read twice) and its definition of justice: at its broadest, order and harmony in society.

After working on a definition with the recruits, the class settled on its own concept of justice: “I want every situation that you encounter to be left better than the way you’ve found it.”

The Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission is responsible for training the officers at 300 police agencies in the state of Washington — every city, county, and corrections officer in the state passes through its doors. 

Much has been written about the training facility and its core philosophy of pushing officers to think more like “guardians” and less like “warriors” — a radical concept in an America where police officers can use deadly force with near impunity and, in the face of 944 deadly shootings this year alone, police departments remain militarized.

Much has also been written about the academy’s feeling-sharing circles, the meditation, the daily journals about life’s beauty. Often, the coverage has revolved around the concept of “de-escalation” — a term now commonly used by the media and police departments to denote policing that involves creating time and distance around a subject instead of rushing in and using force.

For Sue Rahr, the academy’s director since 2012 and the principal force behind the training commission’s reformed program, “de-escalation” is an oft-misunderstood buzzword, and the more kumbaya-esque components of her program, examined in isolation, do not quite strike at the heart of her mission.

“De-escalation is a mindset,” Rahr told me over the phone before Mission Local toured her facility.

Establishing that mindset is exactly why Hendrickson and his story are so important. The message does not hit home as hard coming from her, Rahr said, “the woman who looks like their mom or a real estate agent.”

“So we get big, strapping Sean — a former marine, defensive tactics master instructor, and the most bad-ass cop you’d ever find — to deliver the message,” Rahr said in her office that overlooks the training grounds, only hours after Hendrickson told his story to the class.

Weeks earlier, Rahr said, Hendrickson talked to the Washington State Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs about the academy’s approach. “Even the most conservative members of that association said, ‘I get it now. This is great. I get what you’re doing,’” Rahr said. “Same message, different messenger — a more effective messenger.”

It appears to be working. A 2017 study by Seattle University’s Crime and Justice Research Center compared recruits who graduated before Rahr’s “guardian era” and those who graduated after, on seven scales, including “burnout/emotional intelligence,” “negative police culture,” and “guardianship/empathy.”

The study concluded that recruits graduate with higher levels of empathy, preparedness for crisis situations, and awareness of negative police culture than officers without the “guardian” training. Moreover, officers equipped with the training maintain the guardian-like attributes at least a year after they’ve joined their police departments.

“I definitely think it’s working,” said Jacqueline Helfgott, the professor at Seattle University who led the study.

This could be considered a model for San Francisco Police Department as well, reducing the force it uses against citizens and rebuilding trust with the community. The department, however, wouldn’t allow Mission Local to observe courses that might be considered progressive: a 10-hour crisis intervention training class, for instance, or an eight-hour course focused on “managing implicit bias.”  

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Anecdotally, the courses seem to be having a good effect on newer SFPD officers. Although there have been lapses this year — there were at least three police shootings where little time, distance, and discretion were evident — use of force, as reported by the SFPD, is down 10 percent from last year.

Officer-involved shootings remain flat at five in the first three quarters of this year — but there has not been a police shooting in San Francisco since June.

The SFPD has nonetheless been steadfast in keeping its training out of the public eye, despite its oft-repeated line that it is committed to transparency.

We do not allow observers as there are aspects of the training that deal with operational matters, tactics and officer safety,” David Stevenson, the SFPD’s director of strategic communications wrote in an email. “Also, the Academy endeavors to create a distraction-free environment to allow the recruits the best opportunity for success.”

The setting: a frozen yogurt shop in a predominantly white, middle-class community. The characters: two teenage girls working at the frozen yogurt shop; a mother and 12-year-old son who cannot visit each other without a court-appointed advocate present; and, of course, the court-appointed advocate, who is black.

The mother and son walk into the frozen yogurt shop, order, and sit down. Shadowing them is the court-appointed advocate who ends up sitting at a table behind the mother and son.

Seeing this black man watching the mother and son, the teenage girls get scared. And their boss told them to call him if they see someone in the business who scares them.

So the teenage employees call their boss, and the boss says “good job, thank you for telling me” and calls 911. Two cops show up to identify the “problem” and tell the court-appointed advocate that the business owner would like him to leave. The advocate gets up and walks out the door. The interaction takes all of 60 seconds.

“How many of you think that was a successful police call?” Rahr asked the class after laying out the scenario. The same class had just heard Hendrickson’s story.

No one raised their hand.

Careful not to name the specific police department — and very careful not to criticize the officers’ actions because “they did what they were supposed to do” — Rahr was actually describing a real incident that had happened in early November in Kirkland, Washington. It blew up. The story made national headlines, protests ensued, and the Kirkland Police Department was forced to apologize.

“Let’s get back the L.E.E.D. training,” Rahr said, referring to an approach she developed that stands for Listen and Explain with Equity and Dignity. “You’re one of the cops going into that froyo shop. How could you use this? How might this be beneficial in that situation?”

After a few answers, a recruit got it right.

“In general, ma’am, you need to take more time,” the male recruit said.

“You’re right, it’s about taking the time,” Rahr responded. “You hear people say all the time that you need to treat people with dignity and respect, and from a psychological standpoint, the most effective way to show respect is with your time.”

Illustration by Lola Noguer.

Back in her office, Rahr is a bit nervous. “I kind of went out on a limb there,” she said, explaining that, in general, the academy is careful not to criticize another agency’s actions. “But it’s such a great learning opportunity.”

The fact is, however, that Rahr has been going out on a limb since she took over the facility six years ago. There were growing pains. Around 20 percent of staff were fired or quit in protest as a result of her pushing the guardian-oriented training philosophy, and the current staff — although now clearly comfortable with reporters — were nervous about giving the news media access to their facility. “Everyone was freaked out [at first],” Rahr said. “But I said, “Come on, you have to have a little bit of trust.”

Rahr has been in law enforcement since she joined the King County Sheriff Department in 1979. She rose through the ranks until she was elected sheriff in 2005. She served for seven years and was appointed as the director of the training facility in 2012. She was one of 11 members to sit on Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, having earned a reputation as a pioneer on how the criminal justice system treats people suffering from mental illness.

And, in her office, Rahr said she will be going further. Outlining the incident at the yogurt shop was only a preview of an entire course she and Seattle-based professor, Dr. Daudi Abe, are developing around “race and policing” in the United States — especially on the relationship between African Americans and police departments.

“We need to train our recruits on civics lessons that everyone should get in public schools but don’t,” Rahr said. “It probably goes beyond what people think the academy is doing.”

The civics lessons about race and class address a specific problem, she said. American law enforcement developed in tandem with the institution of slavery and, later, the Jim Crow laws. These clear violations of the United States Constitution now underpin the status quo of policing, Rahr asserted.  

“Now police are really in a bind, and we’ve never recovered from that,” she said. And “we haven’t fixed the problem.”

To begin chipping away at the problem, Rahr has used the U.S. Constitution as a compass. The document is represented in large, window-sized fashion in at least three different — very visible — places at the academy. Rahr handed out a copy to each recruit during the Guardians Are Warriors class, telling them that when they become commissioned officers they will have more power and authority than the President of the United States or the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. “You are going to have power as an individual to take away the life or liberty of somebody with no prior permission,” she said.

But aside from using deadly force, Rahr told them Constitutional questions will manifest themselves in more subtle ways, like at the yogurt shop.

“So when we talk about community policing — if your community says ‘I don’t want black people coming into my yogurt shop’ — we need to look at the Constitution,” she said. “Technically you’re the owner and technically this is private property, but you’re asking me [a police officer] to treat this person differently based on his race.”

“Now the cop is in a bind,” she continued. “And it requires the cop to be far more of a philosopher than a warrior.”

“This is the crux of trust in communities that have been underrepresented and disenfranchised,” she said.  

To be sure, the training at the academy is not all civics lessons and heart-to-hearts. The morning began with a flag ceremony that, by all appearances, resembled that of a military boot camp. The recruits marched in lockstep to the “left, right — left, right, left” of a superior officer and did pushups in concert after reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

At the training grounds, male superiors are referred to as “sir” and female superiors as “ma’am,” and whenever those superiors enter the room, the recruits spring up with their chests out, backs straight, and arms firmly by their side, until they are told to be seated.

Recruits actually spend much more time on developing the so-called “warrior” skills — around 212 hours on defensive/control tactics and firearms training alone — compared to the roughly 60 hours of the more “guardian”-oriented education like Rahr’s “Guardians Are Warriors” class. The entire class is 720 hours long.  

The San Francisco Police Department’s academy also spends quite a few hours with coursework that adheres principles of President Obama’s 21st Century policing model, such as 28 hours of “cultural competency,” 20 hours of “community relations,” eight hours of implicit bias training, four hours on “racial profiling.”

Yet recruits still spend 124 hours between the shooting range and “range-patrol rifle” training, and 119 hours during an “arrest and control” class. The entire course is 1,280 hours.

Rahr cautioned, however, that merely measuring hours does not represent how training works. In fact, she says, “siloing” more philosophical concepts to the classroom and tactical skills to the gym is ineffective. “What’s far more important than the hours is how [lessons] are integrated,” Rahr said.

It’s unclear how the SFPD integrates its courses. When I participated in a media tour of its use-of-force simulator last year, those elements were subtle and appeared to be no more present when media outlets took a similar tour this year.

Yet there was a glimmer of such integration at the Washington academy’s VirTra use-of-force simulator — a holodeck-like chamber made up of five screens that surround a trainee. When operating, it can display a range of scenarios a cop could encounter: an armed (or unarmed) man on a school soccer field or a hostage situation, for instance.  

A police recruit can be equipped with any — or all — of the so-called “force options” usually available to them in real life, including a baton, pepper spray, or even a semi-automatic assault rifle. (The San Francisco Police Department recently began using one of these simulators.)

The day I toured the facility in Washington, I used a repurposed Glock 9mm pistol, modified to shoot out air.

I was responding alone to a call of a suspicious-looking man fixing his van. When I arrived, I noticed the screwdriver in his hands and repeatedly asked him to put the screwdriver down. My gun was drawn at a 45-degree angle.

After ignoring my repeated commands, the man then became indignant and started swinging the screwdriver. As I focused on him, another man popped out of the back of the van and began to shoot at me with a gun. I shot back 10 times and eventually struck the shooter. The simulation ended.

The instructor, the academy’s firearms training manager Doug Tangen, said I did a lot wrong. “He’s trying to tell you some stuff,” Tangen said. “But you never really stopped and listened to what he had to say.”

I had, indeed, kept barking orders — “show me your hands” — at the man with the screwdriver.

Tangen explained that he chooses the direction of the scenario based on my words and actions, and I had, apparently, escalated the situation.

“The fact that you’ve been here for 19 weeks and graduate tomorrow — that’s enormous,” said Commander Rex Caldwell, the deputy director of the academy. He was speaking to a class of 30-odd recruits who would, indeed, graduate the next day and start working soon after.

The class was called “ethics,” and it was a hodgepodge of cautionary advice, dad jokes, and discussing quotes from C.S. Lewis, Maya Angelou and Friedrich Nietzsche — all geared toward preparing the soon-to-be cops for days when doing the right thing might prove challenging.

“Everyone says, ‘I’m gonna do the right thing, for the right reason — even when nobody’s watching — and I’ll never be that guy,’” Caldwell said. “So the question is: Where do those guys come from?”

“You know the ones,” Caldwell continued. “They’re on the news. They’re stealing stuff; they’re planting evidence; they’re forgetting to turn on their body camera every time they get out of their car; they’re roughing people up. Where do those guys come from?”

“Sir, some people seek this career just to have power — and when no one’s looking they will act on that,” said one recruit. Others said it came from complacency, or entitlement, or burnout.

“It comes from all those places,” Caldwell said. And “we have too many of those folks in our communities.”

Aside from the don’t-mess-up kind of advice new cops need on their first day — “keep your heads down and your mouths shut” and ”your text messages are subpoenable” — Caldwell talked about issues one doesn’t normally hear cops talk about. He talked about the “blue wall of silence,” which he defined as keeping quiet when an officer has witnessed another officer doing something wrong. “That’s the cover-up that gets everyone in trouble,” he said. “It gives our profession a black eye.”

He talked about the way police treated protesters during the 1965 Selma march. “Your generation has to help us get past that, acknowledge that,” he said.  

He talked about the effect controversial police shootings have had on him and the profession. “Whether it’s Baltimore, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin … that stuff is devastating to us as a profession, and as individuals,” he said. “If you don’t watch the Walter Scott video as a cop and say ‘holy f—,’ you’re not human.”

But then, he also talked about an issue one would expect a cop to talk about. He discussed the times when officers would have to “wake up at two in the morning to go to work at three in the morning” — the times they won’t feel like dragging themselves out of bed to work in the rain or snow for people who may not appreciate them.

“But you’re going to do it anyway,” Caldwell said. “You are going to get up and you’re going to put on body armor, and you are going to gird your loins as a warrior for battle and step over the threshold and into the arena.”

Caldwell may have been indulging in some warrior talk, but he may have also been conveying something else: the day when they’d have to be warriors with themselves in the arena of right and wrong.

To wit, Caldwell impressed another point on the recruits only minutes later: “Just don’t go out and be a jerk.”

This story was supported by a grant from Solutions Journalism Network.