Mayoral candidates push for Seattle's own police academy

SEATTLE -- Mayor Mike McGinn announced Tuesday the city is looking into creating a police training academy just for Seattle's future officers. And, he's not alone in the push to get Seattle recruits out of the state's police academy.

At a June mayoral debate on public safety, both Sen. Ed Murray and former Seattle City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck advocated for training Seattle's future officers in the city where they'll be serving.

But, starting what McGinn is calling the Seattle Police Basic Training Academy is a difficult and potentially costly prospect. And, Sue Rahr, executive director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, said she thinks Seattle politicians might be overstating the need for it.

Seattle Police Department recruits spend approximately 4.5 months in the state's Basic Law Enforcement Academy in Burien. They then spend approximately four weeks with the city's Advanced Training Unit, learning Seattle-specific laws, policies and procedures.

But, Steinbrueck said those four weeks training in Seattle aren't enough for recruits to adequately prepare for the city's diverse population, street crime, nightlife and mental-health issues.

"Because Seattle is the biggest city in the state, it is a city that is complex," Steinbrueck said. "Its needs are different than other places and perhaps more challenging in more regards."

Murray said training in the Seattle urban environment, which includes the most diverse zip code in the United States, can't be replicated anywhere else in the state.

He said the Department of Justice has made it clear the Seattle Police Department has training challenges ahead of it, and an expanded, Seattle-centric training program will be needed to deal with use of force and biased policing.

Steinbrueck said the key is to shift from a paramilitary-style of training at the state academy toward one of de-escalation and empathy. Recruits who come into training with military backgrounds almost have to be reprogrammed from that kind of training, he said.

"Unfortunately, I think the statewide academy has reinforced a militaristic approach," Steinbrueck said.

But, shifting away from military-style training is exactly what the state academy is doing, Rahr said.

She said the academy is focusing on adult-based learning to help officers build the good decision-making skills needed in the field, and boot camp isn't the best environment to learn those skills.

"Instead of training soldiers, we're trying to train leaders," Rahr said.

She said the academy is reworking its entire curriculum to weave de-escalation, communication and behavioral psychology into all its lessons instead of isolating them in their own section.

Rahr said she believes the training provided to recruits by the state is excellent. Furthermore, she said Washington is the envy of training academy directors in other states specifically because it has only one academy, allowing Washington's law-enforcement agencies to have consistent training and standards.

But, Steinbrueck said Seattle officers are largely following their training, and it's not working in terms of protecting civil rights. He said he recognizes the advancements made at the state academy under Rahr but specialized training will still be needed to deal with the realities of the city and the Department of Justice requirements.

If Seattle does go ahead with forming its own academy, it will have to figure out where the money will come from. That's a challenge the city has to meet if its police force is going to rise to the expectations of its citizens and the Department of Justice, Murray said.

"We don't have any choice but to find that money in the existing general fund to meet those obligations," he said.

Rahr said it costs about $10,000 to put one recruit through training. Right now, the state covers most of the cost, leaving local law-enforcement agencies to pay only $2,500 to $3,000 per recruit. In addition, Seattle would face significant infrastructure costs in actually building its own facility, she said.

In the meantime, Rahr said she hope those politicians debating a Seattle training academy would first look at what the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission is doing and share their ideas for possible changes.

"I would love to have candidates or their staff coming out to the academy and look at how training is conducted then talk about if they can do a more effective job," she said. "You have to educate yourself about what you have before you try to change it."

While the Seattle Police Department declined to comment for this article, Murray said he thinks there is interest in a Seattle training academy from within the department based on conversations he has had.

"They want to be viewed as one of the top-notch police forces in the nation as much as everyone else in the city does," he said.