By Aaron Allen, The Seattle Medium
Monica Alexander, the newly appointed executive director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission (WSCJTC), has the difficult but rewarding task of changing the culture in policing throughout the state. And despite many culture shifts that have already taken place in society, Alexander faces the reality of getting new law enforcements candidates, many of whom may have limited experience with diverse people and cultures, to understand how race and cultural differences can impact their perceptions and how they carry out their duties as a police officer on a daily basis.
The fact that people bring their own life experiences into policing can make finding personnel and vetting new recruits who are open-minded enough to police with a sense of character, not to overreact, and the ability de-escalate situations instead of acting on force alone is the hurdle that WSCJTC finds the most challenging.
“I think this is the million-dollar question,” says Alexander, who served as a member of the Washington State Patrol for 23 years. “When we hire, we are hiring from the human race, which means we are hiring imperfect people, people that are not perfect.”
“One of the things that I’ve learn in my time in law enforcement is that one of the things that skews our visions is our lack of interaction with one another,” she added. “We know so little about one another, we don’t share, and we don’t do a lot of things collectively.”
Established in 1974, WSCJTC provides training to criminal justice professionals, including police officers, corrections officers and to certify, and when necessary de-certify, peace officers. Overseen by 21 commissioners appointed by the governor and the state legislature, WSCJTC helps to ensure that police and correction officers receive training in bias, race and cultural sensitivities and differences, understanding mental health and to hold criminal justice professionals accountable. Accordingly, Washington is one of only few states that has established training standards and provides basic training for police officers and corrections officers. This unique model ensures that every local officer has high quality and consistent training.
“One of the things we are really striving to do, and I would like to see us continue in that direction, is to continue to engage the community,” says Alexander. “The community has a right to know how we are training, and if it were not for COVID, I think we would have been able to have more personal interaction with our community. But we are here to serve everybody.”
As Executive Director, Alexander is pushing to implement more community and law enforcement engagement, and build a bridge of trust and mutual respect.
“So, for me what I want to see happen for the future is more community engagement, law enforcement engagement and bringing those two together,” said Alexander. “How do we build that bridge that brings them together with a mutual respect for one another.”
While the passing of I-940, which required law enforcement officers to complete de-escalation training and mental health training, modified the criminal liability standard for law enforcement officers using deadly force, it also required independent investigations of certain incidents involving a law enforcement officer’s use of deadly force and established state policy requiring law enforcement personnel to render first aid and gave the community a sense of satisfaction.
However, WSCJTC wants to accomplish more than what the law requires and has taken the training of officers to another level by placing more emphasis on bias training, a focus on racism and cultural differences and understanding and introducing more sensitivity training.
Prior to I-940, the processes did not include bias training, the training process did not include a focus on history of racism and cultural differences in communities. The goal of the new training was to equip officers with understanding the science of bias, understanding the history of racism so there would be a lot more sensitivity as they interacted with community members, and mental health education.
As the Commission has evolved so has its membership. Since 1974 the WSCJTC membership has been made up of a majority of peace officers and criminal justice official. But now the commission has shifted to a more community member assembly, meaning that the majority of the seats are now occupied by members of the community.
De’Sean Quinn, who is a current Tukwila city councilmember and chair of the WSCJTC, says that he is proud of the recent changes that have taken place within the commission.
“We have been able to make significant changes within the WSCJTC,” says Quinn. “In the last fours, we have added Monica Alexander, who is the first African American to lead the commission, and myself as an African American was elected as the chair, which is a first as well. We have also expanded the seats to have more community seats because when I first got involved it was majority law enforcement personnel and now there is a majority community representation.”
Quinn says that it is important for community leaders and law enforcement to find common ground when it comes to accountability on the use of deadly force. Not because its popular or fashionable, but because it is the right thing to do.
“Before the Floyd protest, before people running for office began talking about these issues, there were many of us already working on these issues,” said Quinn “I’m talking about community members, leaders who were really pushing the legislature and pushing the commission to be more representative of the role and responsibilities and the partnership between law enforcement and the community.”
For Alexander it is important for law enforcement to be transparent with the communities that they serve, and that transparency should include the methods that are utilized to train officers before they go out in the field.
“One of the things that is so important to me is the community to know that I am an open book and the criminal justice training commission to be an open book and transparent to our community,” says Alexander. “I don’t want our communities to feel like this is some sort of secret society. I tell everyone that if it weren’t for COVID I would love to have more people stop by the campus and see what we are doing and give the community the opportunity to ask questions and communicate with us. Putting us on the hot seat and I love that because it lets the people have a voice.”