Innovations in police recruit training

Using the documentary "Charm City" to teach Baltimore police recruits


By Burke Brownfeld

Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Black Lives Matter. Blue Lives Matter. In 2014 and 2015, we became familiar with these names, incidents and hashtags. The news outlets flooded our screens with divisive arguments on all sides of the issues related to police and community relations. We all remember the yelling, and the pressure to choose a side. As a former police officer, this is when I started to feel frustrated. There was plenty of anger to go around, but what was the path forward? What were the actionable next steps to forge ahead and improve the fractured relationship between the police and the community?

I wondered what could be done to contribute to this national conversation. In 2015, I connected with Big Mouth Productions, a documentary production company. We challenged ourselves to create a documentary that could help bridge these divides by showing the viewer the daily lives of the people of Baltimore. The result was a film called "Charm City," which premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Festival. The film provides the viewer direct access to the challenges faced by a wide range of Baltimore stakeholders including police officers, community leaders and politicians. One of the underlying goals of the film was to allow the viewer to feel a sense of empathy for the people whose lives unfolded on the screen.

In a still from the documentary "Charm City," Officer Eric Winston is pictured on patrol in the Southern District of Baltimore. (Photo/John Benam)
In a still from the documentary "Charm City," Officer Eric Winston is pictured on patrol in the Southern District of Baltimore. (Photo/John Benam)

The film sparked wonderful conversation about the challenges around violence in Baltimore, deepening the understanding of what it’s like to grow up in a neighborhood with high unemployment and high levels of violent crime. It also showed what it’s like to serve as a police officer in the streets of Baltimore, in a department that is woefully under-staffed and over-exposed to violence.

Charm City as a Training Tool

I felt the film could serve multiple useful purposes in the police academy context and partnered with former Baltimore Police Deputy Commissioner, John Skinner, to deliver a day-long training program for Baltimore police recruits in the middle of their basic training.

We started the training by showing the film, and continued with a structured program that used the characters of the film to illustrate the main academic concepts.

The training consisted of several core concept areas:

  • Values in policing;
  • Empathic policing;
  • Procedural justice/legitimacy;
  • Impacts of violence.

Why Use Film as a Training Tool?

I felt that turning the film into a training tool for police recruits made sense for multiple reasons:

  • It helps make academic concepts more user-friendly: We toss around terms like “procedural justice,” “legitimacy” and “implicit bias.” But for a 21-year-old recruit, how do we make those concepts come to life? Our training used clips from the film, allowing the students to understand the academic concepts through the lens of different characters. For example, we showed a clip of a traffic stop when one of the main subjects in the film (Alex) is actually filming his sister’s traffic stop on his cellphone and is clearly not happy with the way the traffic stop is being conducted. We asked the students to think through what they saw on the film. What went well? What could have gone better? Through lively conversations we directly connected the definition of a concept like procedural justice with what the students saw on the screen.
  • Young people like screens: Have police academies kept up with the pace of change in technology and the generational shifts of our police recruits? If we want young people to be engaged and absorb core concepts, we must deliver them in a way that speaks to them. In the age of iPhones and constant access to technology, we should be creative with how we deliver important themes. Using feature-length films as training aids provides one avenue.
  • Feature-length films allow for empathy: A core concept behind the film and the police training was to allow the film to be a vehicle for empathy. Police academies often use dashcam and body-worn camera footage to teach about tactics and officer safety. Those are certainly useful. However, those short clips are very specific moments of time in a person’s life. The benefit of a feature-length documentary is the opportunity for character development, and therefore, the viewer has time to learn more holistically about each character’s experience and life story. These become the building blocks for the student to be able to exercise empathy.

When we presented this concept of empathic policing, it was framed as a way to keep both officers and citizens safer. We presented various scenarios where an officer could practice “tactical empathy” to de-escalate a situation. One example we explored was conducting a stop on a person during the wintertime in freezing temperatures. The officer approaches a person who has his hands in his pockets. The officer has an option to simply order the person to take his hands out of his pockets, or the officer can achieve the same goal, while adding a dose of empathy, “Sir, I know it’s cold outsidebut for my own safety, could you please remove your hands from your pockets?” Using the scenes of the film as a foundation, we were able to explore various scenarios to determine how empathy can be applied for officer safety.

"Charm City" delivers a candid portrait of citizens, police, community advocates and government officials during three years of unparalleled, escalating violence in Baltimore.
"Charm City" delivers a candid portrait of citizens, police, community advocates and government officials during three years of unparalleled, escalating violence in Baltimore.

Did the Training Have Impact?

In partnership with Big Mouth Productions, the Baltimore Police Department training program was accompanied by a robust impact analysis. Through surveys of the 37 students, we identified exciting results around the use of the film and the training:

  • 94% of the participants said "Charm City" increased their perception of the importance of positive relationships between police and residents;
  • 89% of the participants felt the training “helped them to be a more effective police officer.”

Two samples of takeaways by the students included:

  • “Allow the communities to have a voice, be humble and remember everyone is a person first.”
  • “Be kind because people want to be loved and respected.”

What is next for Innovations in Police Training?

There is immense opportunity at the intersection of film, police training and the concept of empathy. If we agree that officers benefit from the ability to empathize with the people who they come into contact with, then it is easy to see why film is useful. The use of "Charm City" to achieve this is merely one example of using film to bring life to key training concepts.

The use of virtual reality in policing provides a new avenue to create empathy in a training setting. The Chicago Police recently partnered with Axon to deliver an empathy-focused virtual reality training program that allows officers to see the perspectives of both the responding officer and the citizen, within the context of a police encounter. 

My challenge to police academy directors, police instructors and police chiefs is to reflect on your current curriculum for your police recruits and answer the following questions:

  • How well are we connecting with today’s typical police recruit in terms of learning style?
  • Are we talking about empathy in our curriculum and connecting the concept to police tactics?
  • Are we thinking outside the box by using documentary films or virtual reality to bring to life core concepts for our recruits?

About the author

Burke Brownfeld is a criminal justice writer, speaker and trainer. He was a consulting producer for the film "Charm City." Burke served as a police officer with the Alexandria Police and as the manager of infrastructure protection for the Metro Transit Police in Washington, DC.

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