Changing the “Culture of Policing”—One Recruit at a Time

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Photo by Adrian Owen via Flickr

A $950 million, eight-story state-of-the art police academy facility that looks like a college campus is the face of the dramatic “culture change” the New York Police Department (NYPD) hopes to introduce to a new generation of recruits.

photo courtesy NYPD

photo courtesy NYPD

Completed in 2014, the building boasts a cafeteria, an 800-seat auditorium, a two-floor library, a 45,000-square foot gym and an Olympic-size swimming pool.

The university resemblance is no accident.

“When you talk about training, environment matters,” said Tracie Keesee, who became the NYPD’s Deputy Commissioner of Training in February, 2016.

Until recently, recruits to the nation’s largest police force squeezed into an overcrowded and outdated building in lower Manhattan.

Plans for the academy were approved during the era of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly in 2007, but under prodding from Kelly’s successor,  William Bratton, New York’s City Council finally agreed to a major upgrade that included a move to the new 700,000 square foot facility in Queens, NY.

NYPD's former academy on W.23rd St. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

NYPD’s former academy on W.23rd St. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

A key driver of the change was the growing concern about the interaction between police officers and New York’s diverse community. In July 2014, an African-American named Eric Garner was killed when a white police officer used a banned chokehold maneuver while attempting to arrest him outside a storefront in Staten Island.

His death, coupled with the video recording of his arrest, sparked public outcry, with many claiming that police  used unnecessary force. By the time the incident ended, four officers were involved in subduing and arresting Garner–one of whom was a black police sergeant.

Change Prompted by Tragedy

It was one of a number of similar incidents that have raised questions about the state of policing in this country. By mid-December, according to a count by the Washington Post, 933 people—many of them individuals of color—had died in interactions with police.

In many cases, the victims were either unarmed or—according to community groups—posed no immediate threat to the officers.

As a result, many police departments have begun to rethink the way officers are being trained.

The NYPD is, arguably, leading the way.

Bill Bratton by Policy Exchange via Flickr

Bill Bratton by Policy Exchange via Flickr

In 2014, soon after Garner’s death, Bratton (who retired from the NYPD last year) implemented a new three-day “re-training” course for all officers in de-escalation tactics and appropriate methods for subduing a suspect if an encounter escalates into violence.

But NYPD leaders also realized that building a force that would be sensitive to cultural differences and to the innovative strategies recommended by policing experts required a major overhaul in both recruitment and the approaches used to train new officers.

“If you want to recruit the best you have to change with the times,” said Keesee, a 25-year veteran of the Denver Police Department.  Before she left the force with the rank of Captain, she served as liaison to the Department of Homeland Security.

The Crime Report was given exclusive access to the new Academy’s first class of 700 recruits, sworn in by Mayor Bill de Blasio in October. For the next six months, we will be following one training “company” of 25 young people, not only to assess how and what they learn—but to profile the new generation of  cops that the NYPD hopes will change the face of policing in New York.

Every year between 10,000 and 15,000 men and women between the ages of 18 and 35 apply to serve as officers in the NYPD.

Only after completing character, psychological, fitness, and medical exams and interviews are any deemed qualified to attend the academy.  In recent years, finding recruits that fit the NYPD’s tough standards has proven a challenge.

Candidates must pass demanding physical and psychological tests, have a drug-free record, and face rigorous background checks—a daunting task for many would-be officers who grew up in troubled neighborhoods.  Anti-police sentiment and recent incidents, such as the death of Eric Garner, have also taken a toll on turnout.

In 2014, the number of police exam test-takers dropped 17.8%—to 12,286 from 14,953 in 2013.

Some NYPD managers blamed the lack of interest on competition  from better-paying and less-risky opportunities in the job market.  A starting NYPD officer can expect to earn $41,975 a year.

However, change is coming.

The new recruits in the Academy’s October class foretell a dramatic change in the makeup of the NYPD.  Nearly 24% are female, making this the largest contingent of female recruits ever.  Some 16.5% are African-American, the second highest percentage of all time and a more accurate reflection of the demographics of New York, where 17.6% of the population is black.

Moreover, the class contains individuals from 41 countries, speaking 29 different languages, and 63% hail from one of New York’s five boroughs, an impressive number in a country where it has been reported that most police officers don’t live in the city they serve.

“The best way to serve our city is to make sure that we look like our city,” said new NYPD Commissioner James O’Neil at the October swearing in ceremony.

The face of the NYPD is changing. Photo by Henrique Pinto via Flickr

The face of the NYPD is changing. Photo by Henrique Pinto via Flickr

Photo by Pascal Subtil via Flickr

Photo by Pascal Subtil via Flickr


The change in approach begins with the training structure itself.  In the past, recruits were part of  “mega-classes”, which often consisted of anywhere from 1,200 to 2,000 recruits.

Today’s classes are arranged in smaller companies of 25 recruits each, allowing recruits to get more personalized attention from instructors—in classrooms outfitted with digital projectors, outlets for computers at every desk, and wireless access.

Keesee is a former project director of the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice which, in conjunction with the Justice Department, provides training to law enforcement and communities on bias reduction and procedural fairness and applies evidence-based strategies to policing.

That background, she says, has persuaded her that training is crucial to bridging the growing divide between police and their communities.

A co-founder of the Center for Policing Equity , which promotes police transparency and accountability, she understands the challenges of building that bridge.

Deputy Commissioner Tracie Keesee. photo by NYPD

Deputy Commissioner Tracie Keesee. photo by NYPD

“There’s this huge space [between cops and the community] and in that space is a lot of pain, a lot of history, a lot of misunderstanding, a lot of anger, good experiences, bad experiences,” she told TCR in an interview.

“We are trying to figure out how we help the officers and the community navigate all of that and figure out how we come together and keep communities safe.”

“Reality-Based” Training

 At the new academy, the NYPD is tackling that question by balancing 21st century technology and ingenuity with what has become a growing theme among law enforcement: reality-based training.

The idea of reality-based training is to get both recruits and in-service officers involved in problem-solving around scenarios that are as close to real life as can be replicated in a training environment.

At the academy, recruits are run through scenarios in simulated settings located on several floors of the facility.  There is a 128-foot-long streetscape, including a deli, bistro, and bank; a subway station with a modified subway car; five different apartment layouts; three precinct houses, complete with holding cells and muster rooms; as well as three different courtrooms.

“Nothing like this has been done, on this level, before,” says Sergeant David Taormina, the academy’s Scenario Based Training Coordinator and a 26-year-veteran of the NYPD.

“When we were training we got two chairs next to each other in a classroom and were told it was a car.”

Today, he guides companies of recruits through simulation settings that are complete with trees, sidewalks, and decommissioned police cars and civilian vehicles mounted on dollies so that they can be positioned wherever necessary.

Under the watchful eye of instructors like Taormina, as well as their classmates, recruits are led through arranged situations that not only test what they have learned in class, but also how they would apply that knowledge on the job.

In one scenario, recruits are divided into two groups of six, with one group being assigned to play civilians and the other playing the responding officers.  Those playing the officers are not told what scenario they will be facing—in this case a possible robbery.

The officers begin the scenario in the squad car and are are approached by one of the “civilians” who says that they saw a person leaving the deli with a bag of money, and then accuses that person of robbing the establishment.

The officers exit the vehicle and approach the suspect, who, unbeknownst to them, is actually playing the “deli-owner,” and is heading to the bank to deposit his earnings for the day.

Taormina directs the other recruits playing civilians to either step up as witnesses or bystanders who interject and interrupt during the officer’s attempts to investigate by pulling out camera phones, raising a commotion, and generally getting in the way in order to test how they respond.

This gives them a taste of the type of confusion they will encounter on the job and helps them to learn how to handle the stress and conflict they may encounter.

“Everywhere you go is going to be chaos,” says Taormina. “We raise the stress levels so it’s as real as can be expected.”

In between simulations, instructors question the recruits on the scenarios circumstances, emphasizing the importance of asking questions and thinking critically before acting.  They are instructed to always control the scene, communicate, and avoid the type of tunnel vision that causes confusion, misinterpretation, and conflict.

According to Frank Straub, Director of Strategic Studies for the Police Foundation and the former chief of the Spokane Police Department in Washington, this kind of training coincides with an important change in policing style, one that emphasizes conflict de-escalation and communication over the use of force to resolve situations between police and community members.

“De-escalation” is among the new working concepts recommended by the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, and supported by leading police organizations and think tanks.   Under the old style, most police officers on the job today have been trained to take “decisive action” when they encounter combustible situations—that is to say, use “overwhelming force” to neutralize suspects.

Frank Straub

Frank Straub

“We’d become misguided in focusing police training on overwhelming force and might makes right,” said Straub in a recent interview with TCR.

But that requires a complete re-thinking.  Straub recalls that during his training, “reality-based” scenarios often ended with the officer “winning” the interaction because he subdued the subject with a defensive-tactics maneuver or by even employing lethal force.

The subliminal message of this style of training is that in order to end these scenarios you had to use force.

But while serving as chief of the Spokane Police Department, Straub utilized a different version of training that focused instead on how to interact with the public from a tactical perspective.

“The training now starts with critical decision making and problem solving,” he explained.

“It then goes to verbal de-escalation, and then to the use of force consistent with the behavior that’s being exhibited toward the officer and community.”

Straub’s department of approximately 300 officers completed their training in 2014.  As a result, they saw a 22% reduction in instances of use of force by their officers.

In Manhattan, officers Peter Toale and Francesk Nilaj of the 34th Precinct, who both started on patrol in January after completing training at the new academy, handle a community where many of their cases often deal with emotionally disturbed people (EDPs).  For them, the training that they received at the academy was invaluable.

“You’re going to see a person on their worst day. People that are not taking their medication and sometimes become violent,” said Toale, during a recent “ride-along” through the precinct with TCR.

“Before the training at the academy, if you saw some guy shouting and going crazy,  you’d run in and, basically, jump head first [into the situation].”

Instead, both Nilaj and Toale have been taught to take a step back and assess, understanding that methods as simple as a lowered tone of voice, attention to the words they are using, and an observant cultural awareness for those they interact with, could potentially end a situation far better and safer than most of the tools they have on their belts.

“If you don’t do the training at the academy and you just try to talk to people, you tend to jump to conclusions,” said Nilaj.

Those too-hasty conclusions that could become a point of tension and conflict between officers and any individual they may encounter—and often account for officers opting quickly for the kind of forceful approach that has ended in tragedy in so many cities around the U.S.

Instead, reality-based training gives them the skills and techniques to engage with troubled or nervous suspects and helps them recognize that a subject’s erratic behavior may be a symptom of fear, anger, drugs, or mental distress.

“Most of these EDP’s are not too bad, they’re decent people,” said Toale.

“The training teaches you how to calm people down first, tell them that we’re not here to do anything to them, that we’re just there to help them.  It teaches a different style of how to talk to them.”

But though they consider the reality-based training at the academy to be necessary, beneficial, and as true to life as it can get, both agree that it only goes so far in preparing you for the real thing.  Acknowledging this reality, the academy has instituted a ten-day field training program, so that every recruit can experience a small taste of what’s in store after graduation.

“It’s not about just getting them into the classroom, but about using the whole city as a classroom,” says Keesee.

“Getting them out into the community so they can understand the neighborhoods they’re going to be serving.”

Thanks to this program, recruits are now able to see what it is like to actually go on patrol and engage with members of the community.  Even a small amount of exposure in a training setting better prepares them to handle the job, and can ease them into responsibilities that, up until three years ago, they would never even have been introduced to before being thrown into active duty.

In fact, before 2013, it was standard practice to assign every rookie officer to the most challenged precincts in the city, to place them in the most challenged neighborhoods in those precincts—and expect that officer to learn and perform on the job.

According to Keesee, once inside these busy and occasionally hostile communities, with fast-paced interactions and situations, rookie officers had no time to process or learn about their environments.

“You had new officers out on their own, trying to make decisions on their own, and it was the luck of the draw, you got it right or whatever happened, happened,” she said.

But things have changed.  In addition to their field training program, recruits are assigned in pairs to a field training officer (FTO) upon graduation.

These FTO’s then mentor and guide the rookie officers for an additional six months, making sure that they are using what they’ve learned and that they continue to learn to do their jobs safely and efficiently.

“It’s very similar to how doctors are not really doctors when they graduate from medical school,” says Straub.

“They really become doctors as they complete their residency and their internships, when they’re under the mentorship of experienced physicians.”

Getting out of the patrol car is a critical goal. Photo by Andre Gustavo Stumpf via Flickr

Getting out of the patrol car is a critical goal. Photo by Andre Gustavo Stumpf via Flickr

Some NYPD veterans argue that the field training program is simply a return to older practices that, for one reason or another, had fallen out of use.

Ray Caprio, a former NYPD officer who graduated from the academy in January, 1995 and retired in mid-2003, remembers his own field experience as one of the most effective aspects of his training.

“[The academy] would pair us with senior officers and they would give us training on what to look for and point out problem areas.  It was really effective with regards to getting to know the community,” Caprio said in recent interview with TCR.

The NYPD CPR Program

This training was part of the NYPD’s “Community, Respect, Professionalism” campaign (CPR), which was started in June, 1996 as a response to a rise in the number of complaints placed against the NYPD for discourteous and aggressive conduct.

As part of this campaign, officers like Caprio had to build relationships with residents, meet with  Neighborhood Watch groups, go to community board meetings, and listen to the problems and concerns of the communities they patrolled.  It was an effort that Caprio believes inspired a constructive and beneficial rapport between officers and the public.

“You had to have a really good rapport with the community,” he said.  “There’d be many times when you’d be out there by yourself and they got your back in a lot of instances. If you ever needed help they’d probably be the first ones there.”

However, despite the intentions of CPR, Caprio also points out that most of the skills needed to interact with the public were learned on the job.

“We did have classes on how to deal with the public, and the academy told us we’d be in for some culture shock in seeing certain situations, but there wasn’t enough training for those situations back then,” he said.

When it came to de-escalation tactics and training for subduing a suspect with minimal harm, Caprio points out that while the academy did provide a basic foundation of instruction for recruits, he considered the training he underwent when later applying for plain clothes duty to be far more beneficial.

“When I went back for plain clothes training I got more out of that than the everyday tactics,” he explained.

“It was more one on one, they taught you more advanced moves, subtle little things that you were able to use and help where the situation didn’t have to get violent, where you didn’t have to be super-aggressive for someone to comply with you.”

In looking back on his time at the academy, Caprio feels that there should have been more of this type of specialized training available for recruits who often found themselves out on patrol alone and in situations that they were not prepared for.

Today, the field training program is an essential extension of the NYPD’s training process.  The reality-based instruction that all recruits receive provides the sort of specialized tactics and methods that were lacking in Caprio’s time.

Photo by Kevin Case via Flickr

Mayor Bill de Blasio. Photo by Kevin Case via Flickr

For New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, this new program represents the model for American policing today.  At their swearing-in ceremony in October, 2016, he told the 700 recruits who started their training a week later that they will become some of the program’s first ambassadors.

“I believe you will be amongst those who put that model into the light, to make it a living experiment of change,” he said.

NYPD Commissioner James O'Neill by Jimgerbig via Wikipedia

NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill by Jimgerbig via Wikipedia

As this diverse group works its way through training, they will be taught how to solve disputes, interview witnesses, investigate crimes, and keep an eye out for things that are not where they’re supposed to be.

They will learn how to engage and become problem-solvers.  Most importantly, they will be taught how to do it all safely and with the interests of their communities in mind.

“You made a choice to do something good and to do something right, and that’s to keep the people of this great city safe,” NYPD Commissioner O’Neil told them at the same ceremony.

Isidoro Rodriguez

Isidoro Rodriguez

Over the next six months, 700 recruits will find out if they have what it takes to do just that.  And we will be there with them.

EDITORS NOTE: this story has been updated to include more details about the Eric Garner incident, in response to a reader’s comment.

Isidoro Rodriguez is a staff writer for TCR. He will publish occasional pieces over the next six months as he follows a class of NYPD recruits through their training. Readers’ comments are welcome.

2 thoughts on “Changing the “Culture of Policing”—One Recruit at a Time

  1. The biggest problem with this article is the author’s suggestion, that the engagement with Garner was racial. The sergeant on the scene was a black female which is rarely mentioned in reporting.

    Also rarely mentioned, what would have been the result if Garner had simply complied with the reasonable, lawful and legal demands of the cops?

    • The story has been updated to make clear that one of the officers involved in the Garner incident was African-American—Editors

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