Commentary: Not everyone gets to be a police officer

There were some startling accusations about the Austin Police Academy in a recent article. The author points out that the allegations are unsubstantiated, and the article makes clear that the accusers failed to complete the program. A letter from an attorney representing the accusers is also linked in the article. Having served 21 years in law enforcement and directed a police academy, I believe addressing some of these concerns will give context to the issue.

A popular term for our police officer model is “guardian.” Somewhere in the development of this new term, we vilified the term “warrior” as it relates to our police. This is a mistake. All guardians are also warriors, even if the reverse is not always true.

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While our police should be both guardians and warriors, they should eschew militarization, in which a preference for use of force is the answer to all problems. As guardians, our officers must be willing and able to use appropriate force as a warrior but understand it is not the preferred course of action.

We are not far removed from two of the best and worst policing examples in recent memory. The failure of a Broward County deputy to enter Parkland High School during an active shooter attack drew national attention to the failures in police selection and training. Then, right here in Austin, we watched our heroic police officers take down a serial bomber with little concern for their own safety.

The same training program that is the subject of these recent complaints produced the officers who took actions for which no training program could prepare them for specifically. This bravery is a cultural issue as much as it is a training issue. Officers willing to take such actions in the protection of their community do not exist as singular unicorns within a police department; they are part of a department culture that finds them and trains them.

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Every police agency’s culture is different. Austin’s policing is a product of training, community involvement, hiring, local government, discipline and a host of other factors.

As for the allegations, consider a few things:

• Some of the cadets failed to complete the very demanding physical training either due to fitness or injuries. The community has a vested interest in having fit officers. Fit officers are injured less and have a greater sense of personal security which can limit their fear response triggering an over-reaction when using force. Unfit or unskilled officers are more likely to opt for the highest level of force against an offender rather than risking their own injury or death.

• Skill level is part of what determines the justification for force; therefore, highly skilled officers are desired. Officers should prefer de-escalation — an important part of their training — but also be capable of escalation, and not just to the final option of a firearm that less capable officers are limited to. Unfit or less capable officers are a liability to themselves and to the public. Weeding them out is properly done in the academy.

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• The ability to operate in all areas of the force spectrum is part of the guardian’s role — and it is the warrior portion of that role that is developed to accomplish this task. Confident officers are made through intense preparation in the training environment, making them sure of their abilities and limiting the chances an officer will overreact or underreact to a situation, like we saw in Parkland.

Austin’s training methods prepare cadets for the realities of patrol work. Every academy class will contain everything from combat veterans to recruits that have never had an interpersonal conflict. All of them must be able to perform once they are sent out on patrol, for their own safety and for that of the community. What the best of them will share upon graduation is compassion, a heart for service, the ability to think critically, physically fit bodies, sound minds, and warrior skills.

Petersen is a senior researcher with Right on Crime and the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

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