In December 2019, at the age of 15, I graduated as class president of the Peninsula Law Enforcement Exploring Academy. The academy is for young people ages 14 to 21 who are interested in a career in law enforcement. It is recognized as a valuable first step in the profession. In fact, the chief, deputy chief, and my adviser from my city’s department are all graduates of the exploring academy.
Upon completion, graduates proudly receive their department’s explorer uniform and go on ride-alongs, volunteer at community outreach events, and assist with overnight security for city events.
For nine consecutive Sundays, I crawled out of bed at 5 a.m. and didn’t return home until 13 hours later.
In the academy, 0730 means physical training. By 0830, we are sweaty and exhausted. We struggle into the academy mandated T-shirts and attempt to look presentable. By 0835, we’re lined up in our squads, shirts tucked in, belts fastened, and at ‘attention.’ We march into the classroom and stand before our chairs. We recite the three rules of academy: Never quit. Be responsible. Look after your own.
We settle in for a series of two- to four-hour lectures on law enforcement topics. These topics include traffic, juvenile, and criminal law; patrol procedures; narcotics; firearms; crime scene investigation; and communications. Occasionally, the monotony of taking notes is broken by additional physical training as punishment for sleeping or swearing. 1200 is lunchtime. By 1230, we’re back in the classroom for more lectures, or if we’re lucky, practical training.
Throughout the 100-hour academy, we lit flares and used batons. We felt the kickback of a firearm and were sent, by ourselves, into the woods at night for search-and-rescue practice.
One day, our training officer pulled out his finger guns and yelled “Bang!” He explained, “You always have to be ready. When there’s a gun out, somebody’s getting shot. Is it going to be you or them?”
Never quit. Be responsible. Look after your own.
When finger guns are exchanged for real guns, the mindset of “looking after you own” can be deadly. The officers who killed Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks chose “them.” The officer who killed Jacob Blake chose “them.” Americans are rightfully furious. The thin blue line, instead of representing a separation between crime and society, is beginning to represent the line between officers and their community.
In America, policing is seen as a threat to personal safety for many people of color. It begs the questions: How can we make policing an admirable profession again? How do we teach future officers to be better? How can we raise the standards of policing to ensure justice includes social justice?
My experience suggests three answers to these critical questions.
First, police departments must work toward reaching a critical mass of Black and minority officers to reduce fatal encounters with Black people. To combat difficulty hiring minorities, departments can expand community outreach programs, like the explorer program, and offer subsidized higher education as an incentive to join the force. College-educated officers are shown to be 41% less likely to fire their weapon.
Second, basic academy training must emphasize whom officers are protecting: the community. Instead of elective community policing seminars in some departments, basic training should be based on community policing philosophy to create a new policing culture.
The immersive environment provided by technologies like virtual reality may be effective in educating officers on racism and others’ experiences.
Third, officers must model a commitment to keeping the community safe – not just chasing after criminals. Impressionable training practices like the finger gun demonstration instill an ‘us vs. them’ mentality within future officers. Messages like “look after your own” may curb officers’ duty to intercede when another officer uses excessive force. Had George Floyd’s death not been caught on camera, ex-training officer Chauvin’s actions may have been thought of as acceptable and even imitated by rookie officers.
Ultimately, officers need to take pride in their profession. They must honor their duty to intercede, hold themselves to a higher ethical standard, and be unafraid to have empathy and listen to their morals.
Whether or not policing is effective relies on mutual trust between officers and their community. Right now, the trust is broken.
I’ve taken my new perspective to my advisers in the police department. They told me that my ideas are thought-provoking and will be discussed.
I believe it is possible for an admirable profession to reemerge after reflection and action. I believe it is possible for justice to include social justice.
Will I look back on my time in the Exploring Academy with hope for the future? Only if policing changes. Because it’s not ‘us vs. them’ It’s we.
Jeannette Wang is a student at Los Altos High School and a police explorer at the Mountain View Police Department and can be reached at [email protected]