After news broke about the death of George Floyd after being held down by Minneapolis police officers, law enforcement faculty members at Alexandria Technical and Community College reacted viscerally.
Scott Berger, dean of law enforcement, manufacturing and transportation, got into work and immediately began searching college records to see if those four officers involved in the case had attended his school, as he typically does whenever he hears that law enforcement officers have figured prominently in the news.These four had not.
“I sighed a sigh of relief,” he said.
Becky Swanson, an ATCC law enforcement instructor, raised the topic with the students she teaches.
“I came with a pretty heavy heart on that first Monday and I have to tell you, they really lifted me up,” she said. “The heavy heart piece comes from — I know the fiber and the quality of the humans who want to do this job. That’s not being portrayed at all right now.”
Floyd’s death sparked riots as well as peaceful protests that continue one month later. The four officers were fired and one was charged with second-degree murder while the other three were charged with aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter. Former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, along with the three other former officers present at the scene of George Floyd's death in May, will face trial in March 2021.
It is such an incendiary issue that the school initially only allowed Berger to speak to the Echo Press about its law enforcement program before also allowing Swanson to speak. The school graduates about 90 to 135 law enforcement officers each year; about 30% drop out of the two-year program after the first year.
Both Berger and Swanson said they welcome a Minnesota State review of the law enforcement programs at 18 of the colleges and technical schools in its system. In fact, Berger is sitting on the working group that is looking at how police officers are trained.
“I wanted to be on it right from the start,” he said. “This program at this college has always been on the cutting edge and state of the art and responsive to changes.”
They say they are proud of the various programs and resources ATCC offers, such as a program that teaches communications skills and de-escalation, as well as an indoor firing range, indoor tactical warehouse, crime scene processing room, indoor fitness center and a dozen fully marked squad cars. But they also say they believe they can always improve, and are willing to listen and make changes.
Berger said the review board’s goal is “to understand that none of us as individuals or as a group have all the answers. It’s to sit down and figure out what we want and how do we get there.”
As former sworn officers, they have seen what works on the streets — and what doesn’t.
In the years before administrative duties took Berger out of the classroom, he would tell his law enforcement students the following story.
He had been a police officer less than two years when he responded to a call about a domestic disturbance involving a gun.
A sheriff’s deputy also showed up, and the suspect took off running. After they caught the suspect and cuffed his hands, the emotional deputy deliberately tripped the man.
Berger caught the suspect to prevent him from falling and, even though the deputy was 20 years older than him, Berger reprimanded him sharply.
“Get away from me,” Berger warned. “Don’t ever do that to me again.”
The story is both a warning to students about the emotions they may encounter on the job and the expectations their training program sets for them. Berger said he wants them to always treat everyone with respect, no matter what the situation.
“It goes back to those core values,” he said. “Your duty is to do what is honorable and right and that’s in spite of what other people might think. … If somebody punches you in the face, it’s hard not to take it personally, but that’s where your education and training kicks in.”
Law enforcement can be a dangerous profession. According to statistics reported to the FBI, 89 law enforcement officers were killed in line-of-duty incidents in 2019 in the U.S. Of these, 48 officers died as a result of felonious acts, and 41 officers died in accidents.
To keep officers safe, some training programs across the country have emphasized that they must remain hyper vigilant while on duty, showing graphic dash cam videos of officers getting assaulted or killed, wrote law professor and former law enforcement officer Seth W. Stoughton in the Dec. 12, 2014, issue of The Atlantic magazine.
“Rookie officers are taught what is widely known as the ‘first rule of law enforcement’: An officer’s overriding goal every day is to go home at the end of their shift,” he wrote. “But cops live in a hostile world. They learn that every encounter, every individual is a potential threat. They always have to be on their guard because, as cops often say, ‘complacency kills.’”
Swanson agreed that officers have to be trained about the dangers of the job.
However, Alexandria students hear a different twist, she said:
“The goal is we all go home, safely,” she said, emphasizing the word “all.” That word, she said, includes not just officers, but whoever they interact with. She wants them to leave each situation better than they found it.
“What they’re taught is there are more good people than bad people in this world,” she said.
Police work can also take a heavy toll as law enforcement officers witness the worst humans have to offer. Swanson tries to prepare her students for it.
“That’s something that has to be managed as you progress throughout your career,” she said. “If you don’t manage it, it can manage you.”