I Tried to Join the Police Force; It Was Toxic.

Spread the love

There is a famous quote by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which goes “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” It is one that might provide comfort in the face of so many atrocities and so much injustice. And, for years, prior to the pandemic, I had perhaps somewhat naively always trusted in the idea that even if there were problems within the institutions that make up our society, that good people being good to one another would eventually prevail. But it wasn’t until the pandemic hit when my sense of how justice actually happens would be reshaped. 

For the 18 years prior to the pandemic, I had taught research methods at various higher education institutions. But, the longer I was home, the more time I had to reflect, to reassess what I really wanted out of my life’s work. Motivated not only by all of the same things that drove millions around the country to join the “Big Quit” and leave their steady jobs to follow their passions, but also by my feelings of horror as I watched the very public murder of George Floyd, and then the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement activated the world, I knew I had to make a change. So, in October 2020, I enrolled in the academy of the Detroit Police Department (DPD). I thought that I could be part of the change in policing that the country was calling for, and that I felt – and still feel – that this country and society need so desperately. Believing, at the time, that reform from within the system could be possible, I thought I could make an impact by bringing in my values of building community relationships as key to building bridges and alleviating the circumstances that seem to have led to Floyd’s murder. However, in February 2020, four months into the six-month program, I quit. As a well-trained educator, I saw that the training officers receive facilitates police violence. I saw that doing the kind of work I wanted to do was not going to work in a system that isn’t actually broken when it centers violence in its tactics, it’s just doing what it was designed to do.

The Detroit Police Academy facility, located on Linwood Avenue on Detroit’s west side, has for decades trained new officers (called, until graduation, Student Police Officers, or “SPOs”). In my time in the academy, it was stated frequently that DPD was seriously lacking officers. On the current City of Detroit website, it states that the city has 2,200 officers. It’s a department that pays less than its suburban counterparts yet sees more action. The rate of attrition is high. 

Detroit has the only city-run police academy in the state of Michigan. To become an officer in other communities in Michigan, applicants enroll in a community college program which is taught in a classroom setting on a college campus. Detroit has the only academy that is run by and financed by the city government. While the community college programs also offer physical training and defensive training, DPD’s program is more in-depth in a myriad of ways. The Detroit Police Academy has a deep psychological tattoo that it gives its trainees by way of rebuilding the self through mental and physical training almost all waking hours of its rigorous six month training program.

When I entered the academy, I had trained for months to enter. I’ve always loved working out and being active, so it wasn’t a huge stretch. Achieving the physical strength and endurance governed by the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards (MCOLES) made me feel both accomplished and proud. Entering the academy at age 46 made me the oldest student of any of the classes in the building. I was about the same age as my instructors. I was part of a class of 26 SPOs. Three had already gone through part of the community college training and graduated early. Three other people in my class contracted COVID and graduated with a later class. I dropped out. We went from a class of seven women and nineteen men to a class graduating with three women and fifteen men. Two of the women were African American, one woman was of Latino and Palestinian descent, and the rest of the women (including myself) were white. The men were all white except for two African American, one Latino, and one Filipino. I was the sole person – of the students and the instructors – to reside in the city of Detroit. 

Pervasive violence against African Americans and other marginalized groups has shaken the trust that many Americans have in our democracy. It seems like every time we turn on the news, we find that another human being has been shot dead by police before they even took a few seconds to observe the situation to which they had been called. This is contrary to the idea of a democratic social contract, under which citizens should have a right to a fair and speedy trial, and certainly freedom from extrajudicial execution.

While I was in the Detroit Police Academy, instructors adamantly insisted that SPO’s perform rituals about respecting citizens.  At the same time, there were ways in which instructors were deeply disrespectful of their constituents, trainees, and each other. Superficial rituals of respect, or accountability theater, provided cover for abusive attitudes and behaviors. 

Accountability Theater

At the academy, we were taught verbal rituals that were meant to show respect for the public, but they were superficial. Our instructors stressed the importance of addressing the public with Sir or Ma’am to connote respect. It was ingrained in us by repetition and training, with us addressing all instructors as Sir and Ma’am and not speaking unless being spoken to. 

Over and over again, I saw the same instructors turn around and negate that by making fun of homeless people and folks that occupy the fringes of society – people who are very much a part of our city. While officers are trained to express respect in public, what happens behind their constituents’ backs is another matter entirely. It was as though we were being trained to perform a kind of accountability theater that disguises a culture of dehumanizing people. There were many incidents of this. But I can think of one in particular when I was being transported to a medical clinic to receive treatment after an injury that I’d sustained in defensive training (injuries were common among the SPO’s). Two instructors were driving me in a DPD van. As we exited the freeway to the clinic on East Jefferson, there happened to be a gentleman selling masks. The instructors made fun of him, jeering about why would anyone want to buy masks at all – let alone from “… a homeless Covid-y ass motherfucker like him.” I was disgusted and horrified by them and their behavior.

The Rest of the Iceberg

The training environment remained mired in identity-based disrespect. The classroom environment was rife with sexism, homophobic jokes, and bullying. 

I think the instructors thought that we were learning to deal with stress, and the experience of having people scream in our faces. While it’s true that learning effective skills to deal with stress are useful and important, especially for anybody in positions where unexpected situations arise, the trainers seemed to buy into the idea that hazing bonds teams together. Most significantly, if one sees the goal of one’s job as revolving around maintaining order, domination is normalized – for those in the force as well as public constituents.

The rituals of domination and subordination were varied and intricate. These began with a retraining of the body and progressed to a normalization of punishment.

Rituals of submission even impacted the perception of eye contact. While mainstream culture treats eye contact as an indication of respect, the police academy trained SPO’s to experience eye contact as a violation. Students were not allowed to look at instructors directly in the eye. I had always been taught that it is respectful to look someone in the eye when they’re speaking to you. But the instructors would yell at us for making eye contact. Like drill sergeants, they would get in our faces and scream obscenities at us. It was “education” by employing stress, and arguably, extreme disrespect and abuse.

Another disturbing “teaching technique” was “jacking,” or punishing recruits by distracting them with an intense workout, throwing their possessions, and then making the recruits clean up the mess. “Jacking” and other punishments were not necessarily a reaction to the SPOs actually getting things wrong. It was more about normalizing punishment.

Solving It: 

I know that I only saw one small part of one police academy for a short period of time. But from what I saw, the national prevalence of police violence makes perfect sense. Officers who abuse citizens are doing exactly what they’re trained to do. The model that the Detroit Police Academy employs of extreme stress, verbal abuse, and overall punishment is not a sustainable model for education of its police force.

If we want police to stop executing citizens, their training needs to stop normalizing punishment and start emphasizing de-escalation. It does not teach the officers that graduate to respect and work with the public that it is supposed to serve. I would instead recommend communication skills and coursework that teaches aspiring officers to identify underlying factors for crime. 

The police and their constituents are not on the same page. Taxpayers want institutions that can be called to help out with disasters. Police officers seem to think that they have been tasked with executing people. This misunderstanding is a logical outcome of a faulty educational paradigm. 

We currently train officers to control and dominate. As a result, police violence against disenfranchised communities is not just a coincidence; rather, it is a logical and predictable outcome of how officers are trained. 

Alison Stankrauff is a resident of Detroit, Michigan. She is a U.S. Postal Carrier, delivering in Detroit’s Dexter-Linwood neighborhood. She is a Michigan native who has lived in several locations before coming back to Detroit. Previously she was in higher education for eighteen years at Hebrew Union College, Indiana University, and Wayne State University.