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Lessons I learned at the police academy

A police car with flashing lights.

A police car with flashing lights. Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto/iStock

"Everyone you meet here would be happy to kill you," Officer Murphy told me. "That's what you have to remember."

It was my first night as a patrol officer, and Murphy was showing me the ropes.

"Everyone? You think even the little old ladies here want to kill me?" I asked.

Murphy gave me a tight smile. "All right, almost everyone. But you have to watch out for some of these old ladies."

It wasn't the first time I had heard this sentiment. When I joined the Reserve Corps of Washington, D.C.'s, Metropolitan Police Department, I went through the same police academy training as full-time career officers, and it often seemed that the primary lesson of our training was the same one Murphy tried to drive home on my first post-academy patrol shift: Anyone can kill you at any time.

At the academy, we learned that there were a thousand ways for cops to be hurt or killed. Unwitting police officers conducted traffic stops, only to be gunned down by meth addicts previously invisible behind dark-tinted rear windows. They were overpowered by combative suspects who grabbed their service weapons and shot them in the head, and beaten to death by crazed PCP addicts who kept right on pummeling them despite being repeatedly Tasered. They were poisoned, strangled and pushed off the roofs of tall buildings.

The dead cops were all heroes. But, our instructors quietly intimated, they were also failures. Mostly, we were told, they died because they weren't prepared.

They let down their guard. They interviewed domestic violence suspects in their kitchens, forgetting that kitchens are full of weapons — until the suspect grabbed a butcher knife from a drawer and stabbed them in the heart! They told the meek-looking elderly driver to go ahead and retrieve his registration and insurance, figuring he was harmless — until he shot them in the neck with the gun he pulled from the glove compartment!

"Never forget," the instructors told us, "you have a right to go home safe." Going home safe after each shift was an achievable goal, but it required constantly reminding yourself that of the police mantra: "There's no such thing as a routine call." Any situation could turn lethal in an instant.

There's plenty of truth to this. Just weeks before I began my police academy training, Ashley Guindon, a young officer in a neighboring jurisdiction, was shot and killed while responding to a domestic violence call — on her first day on the job. It happens.

But statistically, being a police officer is not nearly as dangerous as most cops imagine. Contrary to popular mythology, policing is not even close to being the nation's most dangerous job; that honor typically goes to logging, fishing, roofing, refuse collection and a range of other unglamorous occupations. Granted, few people shoot at roofers or fishermen, but even when it comes to intentional homicide, policing isn't as dangerous as, say, being a taxi driver; taxi and limousine drivers are about twice as likely to be murdered on the job as cops. In 2019, just 48 U.S. police officers were "feloniously killed," according to FBI statistics. (In contrast, roughly a thousand people a year are shot by American police.)

The commonly held police conviction that everyone they meet poses a potential threat has lethal side effects — not for cops, but for ordinary Americans. When you're trained to believe that threats can come from anywhere, you start seeing threats everywhere. Nine hundred and ninety-nine times out of a thousand, a person reaching into a pocket during an encounter with police is doing so for innocuous reasons — but police training tends to encourage a fixation on the one time in a thousand that someone is reaching for a weapon, making cops prone to overreact whenever anyone reaches into a pocket (or a glove compartment, or a backpack), and inevitably making some cops decide that it's safer to just pull the trigger.

This is a big part of why police in America end up killing so many people. (It's far from the only reason, but it's a reason that's frequently overlooked.) Most encounters between police officers and members of the public contain a degree of uncertainty and ambiguity, and sometimes officers make mistakes when assessing the degree of threat (especially when racial bias comes into play). But at the moment, both police culture and the law push the cost of police mistakes onto members of the public.

That's the opposite of the way it should be. Police officers take risks in the course of their duties, but they're trained and paid to take risks, and the costs of their mistakes shouldn't be borne by ordinary members of the public.

One way to fix this is for law enforcement training to focus far less on the tiny percentage of situations in which officers face lethal threats, and far more on how officers can further reduce the already small percentage of dangerous encounters. De-escalation skills can help officers defuse tense situations; implicit bias training can make officers less likely to perceive threats where none exist; and good tactical training can teach officers when to slow down and back off, creating the time and space for thoughtful responses instead of panicky reflexes.

Instead of constantly reminding officers that they have "a right to go home safe," police training should focus on reminding officers that members of the public have a right to go home safe too. Cops have every right to defend themselves in the face of genuine danger — but their mission, first and foremost, should be protecting residents of the communities they serve.

Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and the author of "Tangled Up in Blue: Policing the American City," which draws on her four years as a reserve police officer in Washington, D.C.

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