Police academy gets seriousby Marisa Helms, Minnesota Public Radio
Experts say communication is the most important skill a police officer can have. But cops also have to know how to shoot a gun, wrestle people to the ground and take command of a chaotic situation. More than a dozen recruits are trying to learn those skills at the St. Paul police academy. A few weeks ago, we introduced you to recruit Charlie Anderson. In this second story in an ocassional series, we check in on Anderson and his progress in the academy.
St. Paul, Minn. — Two officers have just forced a gray pickup to the side of the road because the driver didn't signal and rolled through a stop sign.
The officers, Charlie Anderson and Bee Lee, find an uncooperative couple inside. A husband and wife are arguing with each other and the officers.
Anderson tries to stop the argument by taking the woman out of the truck. He asks her if the man has been physical with her. She says no.
Anderson and Lee aren't actually cops yet. They're recruits, going through the St. Paul police academy.
The bickering man and woman are instructors. They step out of their role-playing to critique Anderson and Lee's performance. It turns out pulling the woman out of the truck was the right move. The instructor praises Anderson for calming her down and checking on her away from her husband.
Back in their squad car, Anderson and Lee talk.
Anderson says he was nervous before and after the stop, but not during.
"It's hard to get nervous during," he says. "You get flustered during."
"Yeah," Lee adds, "I just don't know what to decide what to do with them. Like, this kind of scenario, it's kind of tough, never seen that before."
Soon after this exercise, recruit Lee quit the academy. He is the among four recruits who have left since classes began in early March. There are 17 remaining.
The pace at the academy is grueling. A day starts at 7 a.m. and doesn't end until 9 or 10 p.m. Most days the recruits meet at police headquarters in downtown St. Paul.
There are uniform inspections every morning and tests every Monday. Recruits aren't even allowed to use the elevators. They have to take the stairs to the training rooms on the fourth floor.
Charlie Anderson says they have to be physically fit because their bodies and minds are constantly being challenged.
"There's a lot of stress involved and that's on purpose," he says. "Because you're going to be stressed out on the street."
On one training day, the recruits are at the department's firing range in Maplewood. It's their first day out here.
The recruits line up in two rows. Those in the front row are learning how to properly draw a gun from a holster. The back row listens, watches and waits for their turn.
Crows circle above in the gray sky. It's freezing out, and all the recruits are cold; but they listen and look on stoically, pretending it doesn't matter, and pretending they have bullets in their guns. Bullets come later.
For now, their one and only job is to learn the steps to safely prepare to shoot.
"I want to be the best police officer I can be," Anderson says, "and if I'm going to do that, then I need to listen to what everyone's telling me that I'm doing wrong."
Anderson says the pressure that has led other recruits to quit, will help him be a better officer.
"I think everybody realizes that," he says. "Everybody knows they've got the weak points they need to work on. And if we can be honest about that, and listen to our instructors, and take what they say to heart, and try to internalize it, and own it, instead of deny it, then that's going to help us out."
Academy training includes physical sometimes violent, aggressive scenarios, such as wrestling somebody to the ground, learning how to take a punch, or getting maced in the eyes and still being able to draw your gun and hit a target.
Training Commander Steve Frazer says recruits need to know how to control people who don't want to be controlled. He says most of the recruits are learning assertiveness skills that don't necessarily come naturally.
"The context of what we're asking them to do; it's not normal," he says. "In day-to-day life, you don't walk into a room and tell everybody to be quiet, and listen, and sit down and stop moving. If I'm in your house as a guest in a social setting, I'm not going to tell you, don't go in the other room, don't get off that couch."
Frazer says for officers to maintain order, and do it within the law, requires a complex set of interpersonal skills that aren't just based in physical force.
"If you broke down the academy into just a couple of big areas, probably the biggest area that has threads through everything we do, is communication," he says. "If you do not have a strong ability to communicate with people of all races, all colors, all situations, both under stress and not under stress, you will probably not be successful as a police officer."
Frazer says Anderson is emerging as an informal leader and isn't shy about bringing his previous military experience into the classroom. Frazer says Anderson helps the group stay organized and on time and in place.
Anderson says that's partly the role he sees for himself as a cop. But, academy life is making him take a close look at who he is.
"I get a little overly concerned about what people think about me," he says. "I like to be liked generally as a rule. I don't think there's many people who don't like to be liked. But that's definitely something that I need to work on too. Because the fact is when you put on a blue shirt, there's a segment of the population that doesn't like you for the fact you're wearing that blue shirt. And I have to be okay with that."
The academy isn't all high stress confrontation and physical training. There are also more mundane classes about filling out paperwork and writing reports. But Anderson and the other recruits know that in five weeks, the classes will be over. And what they've learned about facing tense situations could make the difference between a routine day and a life-changing experience.
- Morning Edition, 04/05/2007, 7:20 a.m.