Law enforcement has been under an extraordinary amount of scrutiny this past year, with many precincts across the country feeling ripple effects from the different waves of demonstrators calling for police reform.
David Ross, the chief at the Kenai Police Department, has felt the tension.
In his department, he said there are ongoing trainings and conversations about police-civilian relationships, especially after this summer’s protests over the killing of a Black Minneapolis man, George Floyd, by a white officer, Derek Chauvin, who was found guilty on Tuesday of Floyd’s murder on all charges.
At the Kenai Police Department, Ross said they look at policy guidelines and trainings that could potentially prevent inappropriate police conduct. This year, the staff did a seven-hour de-escalation training as well as a four-hour intervention course.
“That’s another good reminder to young and old officers,” Ross said. “That they have a duty to intervene if they see a misuse of force by another officer.”
People must be high school graduates and at least 21 years old to apply to be a police officer. Once they’re accepted, they attend the 16-week Department of Public Safety Academy in Sitka.
Ross said the academy in Sitka is a “paramilitary” type. There are intense boot camp and defense training components, as well as academic studies of statutes and search and seizure laws.
Additionally, officers-to-be receive diversity training at the academy. Ross himself took the class nearly 20 years ago.
“I think ultimately it helps reinforce the expectation that we treat all people with dignity, with respect, with professionalism, and compassion,” Ross said. “And I think that’s what it comes down to.”
The Kenai Police Department has different training officers on-site, Ross said.
“We try to develop our own instructors so we can do our own in-service training,” he said.
Ross also said several of his staff members have gone to the 10-week leadership academy in Quantico, Virginia.
The protests over policing this summer, and most recently the killings of a 20-year-old Black man, Daunte Wright, and 13-year-old Adam Toledo, who is Latino, have sparked large movements including Black Lives Matter and Defund the Police.
“I think when we see things happen in other places, whether that’s tragedies or crime or poor police conduct … we always try to take a look at ‘What are we doing?’ and ‘Are there things we can do better?’” Ross said. “What can we do to better train our officers? What can we do to better protect them and the department from any missteps in the way we perform our jobs?”
Ross said the Kenai community often sends the department cards or care packages to show their appreciation for the work they do.
“It’s encouraging to officers that see, sometimes, police portrayed very negatively in the news,” Ross said. “We live in a great community and we have a long history of a very good police department, so I think a lot of what policing comes down to is the quality of people we hire to do the job and then a culture of treating the people we serve with … professionalism and dignity and respect and compassion.”
Defunding the police, which has become a refrain among some social justice organizers nationwide, Ross said, would require a lot of deliberation.
“That’s an interesting phrase that gets thrown out a lot,” Ross said. “I think there needs to be a much deeper discussion, if you want to defund the police, on what you don’t want the police to do.”
Some proponents say defunding the police to invest heavily in other systems — like education, housing, social work and mental health services — would limit civilian interaction with law enforcement, which some say disproportionately targets people of color.
“Do you not want them [police] to respond to property crimes? Do you want them to respond slower to 911 calls?” Ross said. “I think until you can sit down and have the conversation about what you don’t want them to do, then that ‘Defund the Police’ is just kind of hollow words.”
When asked about the spectrum of roles police should play in society — particularly if those in law enforcement should be first responders for everything from finding missing pets to de-escalating a violent domestic dispute — Ross agreed there could be room for reassessment.
“I think sometimes police have been used for so many things in some places, they get scapegoated,” Ross said, “whether that’s in addiction treatment or lack of mental health treatment or homelessness issues. So the less, maybe, we deal with those things out of the police purview, the more they become a problem in the police purview.”
Reach reporter Camille Botello at firstname.lastname@example.org.