From lethal force to alcohol, cadets get straight talk about job pitfalls
By Patrick Walters
PHILADELPHIA — The rows of Philadelphia police cadets grew quiet as grainy video rolled across a screen before them: Shocking footage of a transit officer in Oakland, Calif., fatally shooting a suspect in the back as the man was being held down on a train platform.
"Sir, did the officers see a gun?" a cadet asked after it ended. After a lieutenant said "No," the recruit shook his head at the example of what not to do.
On Monday, 166 Philadelphia Police Academy cadets graduated and got their badges. This year, with police scrutiny high nationwide, they first got a dose of straight talk about pitfalls that have derailed recruits. In other big cities, training touches on such topics, but Philadelphia now has a more direct, all-inclusive approach: What can get you fired?
The Guardian Civic League, a group of black officers, presented a program called "Steer Straight" to the class last week. Veteran officers spent seven hours telling them all about what could ruin their careers _ domestic violence, improper use of lethal force, alcohol abuse, accepting freebies on the job and more.
"It takes one slip to lose everything you've worked so hard for," Inspector Cynthia Dorsey, who heads up the internal affairs division, told the class.
With about 6,700 officers, the Philadelphia Police Department is the nation's fourth- largest force _ behind New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
The Guardian Civic League presented the program to active officers last year. But the group's president, Rochelle Bilal, worried young recruits weren't hearing enough from seasoned veterans, and Commissioner Charles Ramsey asked her to take it to cadets.
It has been a tough few years for the department, with seven officers killed in the line of duty since May 2006.
With the force on edge, commanders, community leaders and other law enforcement at the training cautioned that the mistakes of even a very few can tarnish the department's name.
In May 2008, about a dozen Philadelphia officers were caught on television video kicking, punching and beating three suspects at a traffic stop; the city later fired four and demoted several others.
"Don't even think about privacy," District Attorney Lynne Abraham told the cadets. "You are going to have to remember that everybody is watching you."
Cadets heard the story of the transit officer in Oakland who was fired after shooting the unarmed suspect on New Year's Day.
Johannes Mehserle was charged with murder in the shooting of Oscar Grant, 22, a suspect in a fight who had his hands behind his back and another officer kneeling on his neck when he was shot. Mehserle has pleaded not guilty; his attorney said he meant to reach for his Taser.
The cadets got words of warning about an ongoing federal investigation of four officers in Philadelphia's narcotics unit who are accused of falsifying search warrants; none has been charged, but each has been put on desk duty.
They heard about small-time corruption, too, like the case of a 15-year veteran in Daytona Beach who was fired after allegedly threatening Starbucks employees with slower response times if they refused to give him free drinks.
"The way the economy is, they won't have a problem letting you go," said Roosevelt Poplar, vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police, reminding the cadets they are on probation for a year. "Discipline in the police department is, I would say, at an all-time high."
On one day in April, Ramsey announced plans to fire five officers _ including one accused of making derogatory racial remarks on a ride-along with a student journalist and two accused of using racial epithets while responding to a school disturbance.
Authorities in other large police departments say they cover many of the topics but not in an exclusive program.
In Los Angeles, cadets get extensive training about corruption, community policing and use of force, but nothing all in one place, said Officer Karen Rayner, a department spokeswoman. Rookies are paired with a training officer, who has at least three years experience.
In New York, recruits get training on many topics addressed in the Philadelphia program, but no single training geared toward everything that can get you fired.
"They cover it, but they cover in it in a way that they can say 'OK, we covered it. Let's move on,'" said Noel Leader, co-founder of the advocacy group 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, who helped train recruits in New York before retiring as a sergeant in 2006.
Shortly before graduating, New York cadets get community relations training and hear the concerns of department critics firsthand, said Deputy Commissioner Paul J. Browne. Internal affairs also makes a general presentation at the academy; The NYPD also steps up training in certain areas as it becomes needed, Browne said.
Philadelphia cadets said "Steer Straight" at the very least gave them pause.
Anthony Herley, a 23-year-old Philadelphia native, said he couldn't imagine himself in any of the bad situations. He's dreamt of becoming an officer since his hopes for a football career fizzled in high school.
"I've got to feed my family," said Herley, the father of two boys, ages 1 and 4. "The last thing you want to do is mess things up. ... This is a dream come true."