Sheriffs question quality of training at Washington’s state law enforcement academy – USA TODAY

A group representing every sheriff in Washington has urged Gov. Jay Inslee to hire someone to review the state’s basic law enforcement training academy because they are concerned it doesn’t meet legal requirements.

Washington illustrates the problems with the patchwork nature of law enforcement training across the U.S., experts say. There are about 18,000 departments in the country, but no national standards for training, so requirements vary widely. 

Besides Washington, 15 other states train their officers according to standards developed more than a decade ago, according to a USA TODAY survey of every state training agency in the country. Three states failed to conduct a key analysis in order to create their standards.

Grant County Sheriff Tom Jones, president of the Washington State Sheriffs’ Association, urged the governor to act in a letter sent Dec. 8. USA TODAY reported in July that the state Criminal Justice Training Commission, or CJTC, was notified by a consultant in 2019 that it lacked a curriculum that could be defended in court.

“There is no evidence that CJTC has ever undertaken any efforts to address the deficiencies identified,” Jones wrote.

’71 gets a gun’: Graduates of Washington’s police training academy unprepared to patrol streets, law enforcement leaders say

Jon Blum, a former police officer and nationally esteemed curriculum developer, found that the Washington training commission’s academy taught rookies to standards largely not based on evidence or research-based best practices. Instruction was inconsistent, some learning objectives contradicted best practices, and tests failed to ensure students learned what they need to do their jobs, he concluded.

Commission hasn’t created required training

In 2018, Washington voters passed Initiative 940, which requires police to provide first aid to injured people and to be trained to de-escalate situations with people experiencing a mental health crisis. The requirements were merged with another law, and it all went into effect in 2019. 

In the Sheriffs’ Association letter, Jones wrote that the commission still has not implemented the mandated training pertaining to mental health, patrol tactics, de-escalation and implicit bias. For those subjects that are taught, he wrote, the commission “has not been able to provide the documentation supporting the development of the curriculum as required in their own policies.” 

“They’re right,” Monica Alexander, who became executive director at the end of June, told USA TODAY. “We’re still building some of the trainings” for Initiative 940.

She said the agency hopes to hire a second curriculum designer to help with its growing workload, especially from new legislative mandates.

In the Sheriffs’ Association letter, Jones wrote that because the agency won’t provide its members with a copy of its curriculum, sheriffs around the state worry about “significant legal implications for all Washington law enforcement.” 

“We question whether Washington has the fundamental elements of training provided in other states – is the curriculum evidence-based, valid and legally defensible?” Jones wrote.

Alexander told USA TODAY she would provide the curriculum to the sheriffs. “I’m not trying to hide anything,” she said.

She said in an email that she welcomes an independent audit of the academy’s curriculum and is trying to determine the most economical way to do so.

The agency’s “goal is to have the best training in the nation,” Alexander wrote. “I believe we have a great foundation but there is always room for improvement.”

What to teach rookie police officers

Blum’s North Carolina company, FORCE Concepts Inc., had been hired by the commission to review and revise its basic law enforcement academy curriculum. But after Blum submitted his report and before he had finished revising the curriculum, Sue Rahr, the agency’s executive director at the time, terminated his contract.

A commission spokeswoman told USA TODAY in July the termination was a business decision due to “irreconcilable differences.”

FORCE Concepts found that the commission had not conducted a valid “job task analysis” in two decades. Such an analysis involves conducting a review of the 900 or so tasks crucial for officers to do their jobs. It’s core to any job training program, experts say.

Judges look for this analysis when they consider lawsuits over inadequate training. And such analyses are relied on by the U.S. government as well as the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training, one organization that accredits academies.

Washington’s training academy is not currently accredited, according to Tony Anderman, director of training for the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office. 

Police academies need to stay current

States should conduct a task analysis every decade to ensure officers are being taught according to best practices, Blum said. Nebraska, for example, requires an analysis every eight years, said Brenda Urbanek, director of the Nebraska Law Enforcement Training Center. She said its last one was in 2018.

“The profession is ALWAYS one event away from significant change,” Blum wrote in a text message to USA TODAY. “Think Chauvin.” Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder for killing George Floyd by kneeling on his neck. Three former officers are charged with aiding and abetting Floyd’s murder. 

That incident, Blum said, showed the need to emphasize peer intervention in police training.

Alexander, in a July memo summarizing her response to USA TODAY’s story, called task analysis “not conducive to modern police training,” writing that “if the goal is to maintain the status quo, we should keep using” task analysis.

​​​​​​In an interview with USA TODAY, Alexander said that was one thing she hoped an audit of the academy’s courses would clarify.

“It’s my decision to make, after I hear all the facts of why some people think (the task analysis is) outdated, and why some people think it’s absolutely the foundation,” Alexander said.

16 states haven’t conducted key analysis in more than a decade

USA TODAY contacted every state training agency in the country over the summer and fall, asking how they established their curricula, whether they had a job task analysis and when they last conducted one.

Washington last conducted a formal job task analysis in 1997, curriculum designer Brandon Rogel told USA TODAY in July.

Many other states also have gone more than a decade:

  • Colorado: 40 years
  • Tennessee: 28 years
  • Mississippi and Maryland: 26 years
  • New Jersey and Missouri: 25 years
  • Texas: 24 years
  • Kansas and New Hampshire: 20 years
  • Utah and Georgia: 15 years
  • North Dakota: 13 years
  • Connecticut, Rhode Island and Delaware: 12 years

Three states – Montana, Nevada and Arkansas – said they have never conducted a job task analysis.

Colorado Attorney General’s Office spokesperson Lawrence Pacheco said this month that the state is in the final stages of selecting a vendor to conduct a new task analysis.

Training officials in Maryland and New Hampshire said they are in the process of conducting new analyses. A spokesman for the Utah Department of Public Safety said some “subject-specific” task analyses have been conducted in the interim.

And in Alaska, Gregory Stocker, training coordinator for the standards council, said the agency had not initiated a broad task analysis, but entities operating academies have. He couldn’t say when.

Five states – New Mexico, Alabama, Maine, Oklahoma and West Virginia – did not respond to repeated requests for information.

All the other states have performed task analyses within the last 10 years.

Training agency head wants ‘a chance’

USA TODAY reported in July that multiple Washington academy basic training division officers had been involved in high-profile incidents or lawsuits involving ethics and use of force. The story noted that rookies at the academy would joke that “71 gets a gun” because they could graduate with a C-minus. 

Blum’s report urged the commission to “actively recruit new instructors and begin retraining the existing pool.”

Mike Faulk, press secretary for Inslee, said the governor’s office would review the Sheriffs’ Association letter and respond appropriately.

Alexander told USA TODAY she’s “very disappointed” that the Sheriffs’ Association contacted Inslee’s office rather than talk with her directly, describing the move as aggressive, disrespectful and possibly racist. She’s African American.

Jones said he’s obligated to make sure sheriffs’ concerns are heard. “It has nothing to do with her as an individual,” he said.

Since becoming head of the commission, Alexander said, she’s met several times with sheriffs and police chiefs to update them and address their concerns.

Alexander said she’s told them: “Please give me a chance to do this job.”

Tami Abdollah is a USA TODAY national correspondent covering inequities in the criminal justice system. Send tips via direct message @latams or email tami(at)usatoday.com