After weeks of physical condi tioning and lessons in legality, Spokane Police Academy trainees pulled their desks into a circle this week and discussed something entirely different.
They heard from an American Indian, a lesbian, even a black Spokane policeman who feels he gets pulled over unnecessarily by police when he’s off-duty, just because of his color.
The subject was tolerance.
“This is critical for your survival,” Cpl. Tom Sahlberg told 26 police trainees this week during a 14-hour cultural awareness seminar.
“You need to be aware of how your attitudes and actions affect other people on the streets.”
In recent years, African Americans and other minority groups have accused the Spokane Police Department of being a racist institution. Police officers target black motorists, they say, and are not sensitive enough to the community’s diversity.
But the department has made an effort to teach tolerance, officials say.
Nine years ago, the SPD and human rights activists designed a class to teach cultural awareness to police trainees. Now, no one graduates from the academy without taking the two-day course.
While the atmosphere was more relaxed than during the rest of the 12-week training, the work was just as serious, said Stephanie Barkley, a Spokane police officer who helps teach the cultural awareness class.
“We will not hold hands and sing ‘We are the World,”’ she said. “But this is just as important as everything else you learn.”
Five days before graduation, the latest group of trainees closed the doors, turned off the intercom system, and put away their notebooks and lint brushes.
“I’m pretty open,” one trainee said, “but I’m kind of uncomfortable with the gay and lesbian thing.”
Some mentioned their lack of knowledge about Spokane’s Russian community and American Indians.
Others expressed their disdain of other groups, including religious fanatics and the media.
Members of the graduating class ranged in age from 21 to their late 50s, and included four women and a handful of trainees with multiracial backgrounds. The majority were white men in their 20s and 30s.
After graduation next Tuesday, most will be officers for the Spokane Police Department and the Spokane County Sheriff’s Department, but some will work for other area agencies.
“Every single one of us, no matter how open we are, have biases,” Barkley said. “The important thing is to be aware.”
In group exercises, trainees worked on identifying their own ethnic backgrounds, defining American culture and exploring the differences between women and men in the workplace.
Subjects ranged from cultural identity to the more touchy issues of affirmative action and gender equality.
They also got practical advice from members of the community: Don’t look American Indians in the eye - it’s a sign of disrespect. When dealing with an African American household, approach the mother. She’s the one who runs the home.
The cultural awareness course, which has evolved over the years, wasn’t designed to be “warm and fuzzy,” said Sahlberg, who introduced himself as a Christian white male, a Spokane native with a 17-year history at the Spokane Police Department.
Barkley, a mother of four who joined SPD nearly 12 years ago, talked about her multiracial background and growing up in a mostly black neighborhood in South-Central Los Angeles.
She also spoke of how she dealt with equity issues and how aware she has become in the last few years.
“When I got this job, I wouldn’t have known sexual harassment if it hit me in the face,” she said.
For the most part, trainees were frank and often joked with each other. Some subjects, however, pressed a few buttons.
Some expressed their discomfort with homosexuality. About half the men in the room also complained about being passed up for a job or scholarship because of affirmative action.
During a discussion on the differences between men and women in the workplace, a few crossed their arms and became quiet. Some threw their hands up in frustration.
A classroom video showed two police officers driving through an affluent neighborhood when they notice two African American men in a car parked alongside the road. They immediately turned around, asked the driver to step out of his car and asked if they lived in the neighborhood. “Just a routine check,” the officer said, when asked why they were questioned.
After showing the video, Salhberg asked if any of the trainees would have done the same.
Only two said yes. A handful said they weren’t sure.
“The color didn’t matter to me,” said one of the two trainees who would have questioned the men in the car. “It was the type of neighborhood, the time of day and the car they were driving.”
There was no right or wrong answer, just advice from an officer who has spent years on the streets.
“Make sure you have reason to stop someone and articulate the reason,” Sahlberg said.
Trainees heard the same message the following day from a black SPD officer who asked not to be identified in this story.
He’s been pulled over before when he’s not in uniform, he told the class. On one occasion, he was stopped for driving too fast downtown in bad weather. But he wasn’t driving faster than 23 mph, he said.
“When you pull people over, make sure you have probable cause,” he emphasized. “It’s 1997, but these things still happen.
“I can’t win. All they see is this,” he said, pointing to his skin. “This is but a shade. It says nothing about me as an individual.”
But prejudice goes both ways, many trainees said.
As police officers, they, too, are minorities, they said.
“You’re all wearing blue and you have a badge,” Barkley said. “People are going to look at you as a cop. Regardless of how nice a person you are, some people see only the uniform and they will call you homophobic, a racist, a brute.”
Trainee Shaney Redmon understands the bias on both sides.
Her husband, an African American, gets stopped by police all the time for no reason, said Redmon, who is white.
But she wants to make a difference, she said, so she decided to join the Spokane Police Department. And yes, she has met police officers who are biased, she said, but “we’re not all that way.”
The program received good reviews from most of the trainees, including Redmon, but some were skeptical.
“I personally feel that what I feel inside is my business,” said one trainee, who asked not to be identified. “I know my own biases.”
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: The force Of the 282 commissioned officers within the Spokane Police Department, nine are non-white. There are 28 women on the force.