The Austin Police Academy was recently accused of being too aggressive in its training tactics with new recruits.  Several allegations were made by cadets who were unable to complete the required training.  Some allegations were included in a recent article and others in a letter from their attorney. One specific statement alleges that a female instructor told cadets she would punch them in the face if they said “to help people” in response to her question about why they wanted to become police officers.  I am focusing on this specific charge because of the implications the statement appears to make.

Before getting into the substance, let me be clear with two points.  First, by addressing this issue, my intention is not to give any validity to the unsubstantiated claim of former cadets made through their attorney.  Secondly, I do not pretend to speak for the officer against whom this is alleged.  As a former police officer with over twenty years of experience and the former director of a police academy, I want to give context to why and how such a statement could be made.  I will also justify its appropriateness within the context.

Police culture has its own brand of humor.  Sometimes vulgar and dark, police officers use humor as a means of communicating with each other and for compensating with the less than savory aspects of humanity that their profession brings them in contact with.  Police officers, with few exceptions, do not shy away from violence.  Violence is a potential element of their job and lurks on the periphery of their consciousness regularly.

In this context, “I will punch you in the face,” is very obviously not meant literally.  Anyone in that classroom who was in real fear of being punched in the face by their instructor for saying they became a police officer to help people has no business being a cop.  Part of the calculus in using force by a police officer is the reasonableness of their fear of attack.  If an officer cannot tell the difference between a joke and a threat in this situation, then the public they encounter in an uncontrolled street setting should be very concerned.

What then, might the instructor have intended with this comment?  An answer such as “I want to help people” is the standard, canned response you give at the oral interview to become a police officer.  It is a true statement, but it is also a given.  Everyone who becomes a police officer wants to help people, but they could just as well become a nurse, a paramedic, a doctor, a social worker, a counselor, and on and on.  The difference is that most people actually like the people in those professions and there isn’t a segment of society that loathes any one of them simply for choosing that profession.

There must be more than that in choosing this line of work.  I believe the instructor wanted a thoughtful and genuine answer.  She wanted the cadets to dig deep and really think about what made them sign up for this.  She isn’t some psychopath that would actually punch a cadet in the face, because they were interested in helping people, out of some contempt for their display of human empathy.

There will be some very bad days in a police officer’s career, sometimes bad weeks or months.  During those times they will need to dig deep and think back about why they are there and what made them want this job to begin with.  If it was simply to help people, then some of what they see happening around them will cause them to question if they are really doing that, or if they are making any difference at all.  They need a more considered, personal reflection than that to get them through those darker periods.

If this question were asked by the accused instructor, even in the manner it was framed, it was a real learning experience for the class.  The emotional response to it, and to what we reflexively presume it implies, should be reconsidered.  After all, the training program at the Austin Police Academy has turned out some pretty great officers.