The Empathetic Police Academy

One state is revolutionizing the way cops are trained.


During Susan Rahr’s seven-year stint as sheriff of King County, Washington, she reviewed scores of internal affairs investigations. The ones involving allegations of an excessive use of force attracted her closest scrutiny, and led her to pose her own questions to the deputies involved.

“Why did you use force so quickly?”

“Why didn’t you try another way of defusing the situation?”

The deputies’ answers often reflected an approach that has long been in vogue with cops called “Ask. Tell. Make.”

“You would ask someone to do something. If they didn’t do it, you would tell them. If they didn’t do it, then you would physically make them do it,” Rahr says. “And that doesn’t reflect real life on the street. Most good police officers don’t jump that quickly from the first step to using force.”

Then she would ask, “Where did you learn that?”

The responses were usually the same: at the academy – the state’s Criminal Justice Training Center, which schools every aspiring city police officer and county deputy in Washington.

In 2012, she decided to stop asking follow-up questions and address the problem at the source. When she learned the job of leading the academy was coming open, she put her hand up, retiring as sheriff – one of the state’s most prestigious law enforcement posts – to take a job training fresh-faced police recruits.

When she arrived at the academy’s tree-lined campus as director, she was struck by the militaristic culture. Training officers sounded more like drill sergeants as they screamed orders to cadets. If a recruit passed a trainer in the hallway, he or she would have to snap to attention and salute. Feats of physical strength were prized. Compliance was based on the threat of discipline instead of an honor system.

Serving as a police officer “is not just a job, it’s a calling,” Rahr says. “But when I walked on to the campus, the physical environment didn’t always reflect that.”

One of her first acts was to remove a large glass case at the entrance to the main building that displayed nightsticks, handcuffs, badges and other artifacts of policing. She replaced it with a red, white, and blue mural depicting the opening lines of the Constitution.

You are a patriot, she told recruits. The core of your mission is to uphold the Constitution.

Susan Rahr. (photo by Mike Kane)

But the path to more significant change was far from clear. It would require her to deftly navigate a thin blue line of skepticism. More than a few training officers took a dim view of her desire to overhaul the curriculum. In their eyes, the academy needed to retain its obsessive focus on teaching recruits how to wage a war against crime and stay safe on dangerous streets.

“The resistance became a little bit stronger, and then it became a little bit nastier. And a couple of times, I thought, ‘God, is this really worth it?’” she recalls. “There’s two things cops hate: The way things are, and change. But I’ve always known, deep in my heart, this is what we need to do because this is how good cops do policing.”

Rahr, who is 59 years old, would not fit a Hollywood casting agent’s vision of someone who has spent more than three decades in a law enforcement uniform. With her coiffed blonde hair, manicured nails, and tailored pantsuits, she jokes with recruits that she could be mistaken for a real estate agent.

Legions of cops across Washington, however, have learned not to be deceived by that appearance. As have critics of the police. “The fact that she is a woman has been brought up – that she’s weak or she’s not as strong,” says Jeffery Robinson, the deputy director at the national office of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has brought misconduct lawsuits against police departments. He has followed her career with interest. “Anybody that ever encountered her when she had a badge and a gun on would not tell you that Sue Rahr was soft on anything.”

Rahr never intended to become a career cop. She joined the King County Sheriff’s Office upon graduation from Washington State University with the goal of working for a few years and saving enough money to pay for law school. She went to the academy and became part of the department’s first wave of female patrol officers. At the precinct to which she was initially assigned, she had to change in a converted storage room, accessible through the men’s locker room.

It didn’t bother her. She had grown up with six brothers. When she was alone on patrol and had to break up a bar fight, she wouldn’t try to overpower the guys; she’d quietly tell the instigator that he could either lose face by getting arrested by a woman in front of his buddies, or he could walk outside with her, where she would put him in her car. Then she’d say, in a voice loud enough for his friends to hear, “Hey, good looking, want to come out to my car?”

“Growing up with six brothers taught me how to leverage the resources I had, which wasn’t muscles but my brain,” she says with a laugh.

After a few weeks on the job, her training officer told her, “Sue, you’re never going to be a lawyer.”

Piqued, she replied, “You don’t think I’m smart enough?”

“You’re never leaving,” he said, “because you love this too much.”

He was right, and she made her way up the ranks. Along the way, she came to realize that what she thought was a disadvantage – the fact that she wasn’t the biggest, toughest deputy on the force – actually forced her to find a better way to interact with the communities she had sworn to protect.

“What I developed over time naturally was what we call community policing today,” she says. “I was less concerned about, ‘How can I turn this into a law and order problem, where somebody goes to jail, or somebody gets a ticket?’ I was much more interested in, ‘How can we fix this problem, and get other people in the community to rally to solve the problem?’”

Sue Rahr speaks with recruits nearing graduation from the academy. (photo by Mike Kane)

Soon after Rahr took charge of the academy, her son, a recent college graduate, told her that the Greek philosopher Plato used a term that described the sort of law enforcement officer she wanted to forge: a guardian.

It wasn’t just the boot camp atmosphere that she took issue with. Posters on the walls and classroom lectures dwelled on the many dangers of police work and the need to stay vigilant. There was less emphasis on the nobility of the police and an officer’s role in preserving a free society. The not-so-subtle message to recruits, as she saw it, was that cops are the good guys and seemingly everyone else is a threat.

The concept of police as guardians was her attempt to strike a balance. “A guardian describes the complete police officer – the multidimensional officer – and how the cop sees himself or herself,” she says. “The guardian has fierce warrior skills. They have to be a scholar. They have to be a humanitarian.”

She led an effort to revamp the academy’s five-month curriculum. She didn’t cut back on any firearms or defensive tactics training. But she added exercises to teach recruits how to defuse tense situations without resorting to force, see honor in solving a problem without making an arrest, and view interactions with police through the eyes of a victim. “A lot of the people that call the police for help don’t need law enforcement. They need social services. They need counseling. They need housing. Police officers need to see themselves almost as a broker to help connect people who are in a crisis to the resources they need,” she says.

She urged recruits to be more empathetic to those with whom they interacted. “When somebody has their car stolen and they call the police, I think most people don’t really expect that we’re gonna get their car back,” she told one class at the academy. “But what they expect is for you to act like you care. You have to say, ‘Man, I’m really sorry your car got stolen.’ If you just show that much compassion, I guarantee that person is going to have a good impression of you, your agency, and the profession.”

The same applies to suspects, she insisted. “If you treat other people simply as human beings, you’ll be surprised at how effective that can be.”

Several of the academy’s long-serving trainers and administrators didn’t see things her way. Some growled in protest. Others quit.

As word of her changes filtered to departments across the state, which rely on the academy to train their new hires, she received a stinging letter from the head of the Washington State chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police. “I hope your empathy doesn’t become sympathy for their families,” wrote Jack Simington, a detective sergeant with the Kennewick Police Department, who was concerned that she was asking officers to compromise their own safety.

Worried that she might face opposition from students, she asked to speak with the president of the first class of cadets that would be taught the new curriculum. When she learned that he was an Army veteran who had flown Black Hawk helicopters, she grew even more concerned.

At their meeting, she started to explain why she wanted to move away from a military training model. “Ma’am,” he responded, “if I wanted to be a warrior, I would have stayed in the military.”

Rahr also found support among several veteran training officers at the academy, who were pained by escalating tensions around the country between law enforcement officers and their communities. “What Sue was talking about was, ‘Let’s get back to what our mission actually is as a police officer,’” says Russ Hicks, who has spent a quarter-century as a policeman. “This is what good officers always have been doing.”

As the new training philosophy took hold, Rahr decided to place a quote from Plato in giant letters on the wall of the academy’s auditorium: “In a Republic that honors the core ideals of democracy, the greatest amount of power is given to those called the Guardians.”

Instructor Sean Hendrickson demonstrates handcuffing techniques to a class of recruits. (photo by Mike Kane)

As recruits have received their badges and joined departments large and small across Washington, Rahr’s skeptics have come around. Simington, the Fraternal Order of Police leader, has gotten to know Rahr, who wrote him a long, polite response and invited him to visit the academy. It “eased some of my concerns and fears,” he says.

She also enjoys respect from those who often are on the opposite side of law enforcement issues from rank-and-file officers. “She didn’t have to do this. Nobody made her do this,” says the ACLU’s Robinson. But the injuries and deaths – of both civilians and officers – resulting from excessive use of force compelled her to act.

“Sue saw that going on and was disgusted by it, like many other people in America were, and she decided to do something about it,” Robinson says.

The transformation she has wrought at the academy, which she undertook two years before the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, has become a national model of how law enforcement officers can be more empathetic to and respectful of the communities they serve without diminishing their own safety.

In 2015, her reforms drew the attention of President Barack Obama, who appointed her to his Task Force on 21st Century Policing. The group’s first recommendation, in its final report, calls for police departments across the country to “embrace a guardian mindset to build public trust and legitimacy.”

What the report doesn’t mention, however, is a tactic Rahr employs with every class of new recruits. She meets with them during their first month at the academy. She comes armed with a stack of small books with a maroon cover: copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

“When you become a commissioned officer, you’re going to have more power as an individual than the president or the chief justice of the Supreme Court to deprive somebody of their freedom and, in the most extreme circumstance, their life,” she tells them. “That’s an extraordinary amount of trust that’s been placed in you.”

She urges each of them to see themselves as “serving a higher purpose.”

“When you go out in the community, you represent the absolute cornerstone of democracy,” she says. “Can we maintain safety and order and still respect people’s civil rights? That’s what our country’s foundation rests on.”

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