In February, before a pandemic and resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement changed daily life in America, 14 Spokane Police Department recruits entered the Basic Law Enforcement Academy.
The class was not only the largest group to enter the academy in decades but also one of the most diverse.
Getting such a group of recruits was a challenge, said Sgt. Jake Jensen, who oversees hiring and training in his role as SPD’s assistant training director.
More than half of police departments across the country have seen a significant decrease in the number of applicants they receive, according to a study by the Police Executive Research Forum. In 2019, the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs launched the Wear the Badge campaign to promote open law enforcement positions in the state and encourage individuals to apply.
In a February interview, Jensen said that while the number of applicants has changed, the core of what he looks for in a potential officer has stayed the same.
“The motivational piece,” Jensen said, or why someone wants to become a Spokane Police officer, is important. He added they look at a potential recruit’s educational and work background, and make sure there has been enough time between “the party day that most of us have when we’re teenagers and where they’re sitting in front of us now.”
It’s also important for them to relate SPD’s core values of “compassion, integrity and professionalism” to their own lives, Jensen said.
It helps if officers are excited to be involved with the community. Jensen said SPD has put a focus on an “ over-the-top kind of community involvement.”
“We try to keep progressive because it kind of supports the legitimacy of our job,” Jensen said. “When the public doesn’t support you, then you’re kind of out there on your own.”
Before being hired, potential officers must complete public safety testing and be interviewed by the department where they’re hoping to work . After officers are hired, they’re turned over to Officer Steve Perry, the department’s field training coordinator, before entering the academy.
Twice a year, the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, or CJTC, operates a satellite academy at the Spokane Police Department’s training center.
The class, including 14 SPD trainees, was 19% female, 16% people of color, 30% veterans and 30% older than the age of 30 at the start of the academy.
Typically, the academy lasts 19 weeks. But this year, due to COVID-19, CJTC took a five-week break. SPD recruits continued to train in their small group while their classmates from other agencies did not. The class was able to reunite after three weeks.
Then on May 25, George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police officers. His death sparked protests and riots nationwide, including in Spokane.
The academy was able to finish, but with the close contact that defensive tactics training requires, recruits still had to complete 80 hours of training before starting work in their Field Training Car, which Perry likens to “an internship.” After four months of mentoring in an FTO car, these 14 officers will be on their own policing the streets of Spokane.
With a pandemic interrupting their training, changes in public perception of policing and the major life change of becoming a law enforcement officer, these new officers have a lot to navigate. Here are three of their stories:
A.J. Ussery, 29, hopes to bring all his life passions, from basketball, psychology, to helping the homeless, into one career by becoming a Spokane Police Officer.
Ussery grew up in California playing basketball, which at 6-foot-8 was a fitting choice. Ever since he was a child the sport sparked passion for him, Ussery said. As a teen, things were harder, and he spent a year homeless.
“Once you go down that alley and once you get into the predicament, it’s hard to get out of,” Ussery said. “You go through depression and anxiety and all that stuff so being able to self -soothe with alcohol and drugs and all these addictions that people get … it’s really hard to pull yourself out of.”
Ussery said he luckily did not deal with addiction, but experiencing homelessness gave him a greater understanding of that struggle. After getting back on his feet, Ussery graduated high school and received a full ride athletic scholarship to Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, where he studied psychology.
“At first I chose psychology because it was supposed to be the easiest degree and I wanted to concentrate on basketball,” Ussery said. “Then I realized it helped me interact with people , get to know how people thought.”
He spent about six months in the NBA D-League, but Ussery said the business side of attempting to play professionally soured him on basketball.
So, Ussery figured he would put that psychology degree to use. He started work in a mental health treatment facility for 13- to 17-year-olds before moving to another facility for children with high IQs that came from group or foster care situations.
“I loved working with the kids but after a while you realize that it’s really hard to work with kids,” Ussery said.
He said felt “ill equipped” but didn’t want to go back to school for a master’s degree in psychology so he began thinking about working in law enforcement. While working in the facilities, Ussery met several probation officers along with others in law enforcement and felt like it would be a good fit. He moved to Spokane and got a job in corrections.
A big part of why Ussery wants to work in law enforcement is because, as a Black officer, he hopes to change people’s perspective, he said at the beginning of academy.
“I just want people to be able to see a familiar face and look at it and not see it in a negative light,” Ussery said. “I think police officers a lot of times get the least benefit of the doubt instead of more benefit of the doubt.”
After a little over a year working in corrections, Ussery said he decided SPD was the place for him. As a corrections officer, Ussery interacted with officers from every law enforcement agency in the area.
“The reason I chose the city is just because of interactions with a lot of city officers and the way they act,” Ussery said, adding they gave the
impression of working well together, being family oriented and staying positive even in difficult circumstances.
After being selected, Ussery said he felt relieved but also ready to learn.
As the only Black man in the class, Ussery said he does feel like race is “a huge” topic.
“I think all humans are created equal so color shouldn’t really matter,” Ussery said. “I think that if more people of color started to join law enforcement and you saw them going out into the community, it would be very helpful to see that.”
However, Ussery also said he doesn’t feel there is “racial tension” between all officers and Black people.
“Every single time I’ve been stopped by a cop before this experience, I’ve never had issues. I’ve never had problems. I respect them,” Ussery said. “Everybody is going to be the same in ways and everybody is going to be different in ways.”
Before the death of Floyd, Ussery said he felt there wasn’t any real solution to race in policing until “the perspective of society” changes.
“I want to make sure that eventually you’re not seeing a color,” he said. “Eventually you’re seeing just a man with a badge who is there to help you.”
The rest of academy was a lesson in adaptability with COVID-19 and civil unrest.
“That’s pretty much what our job is, adaptability,” Ussery said of the break in instruction. “We got more in -depth, the 14 of us were able to get together and have some instructors actually give us some more in -depth teaching that we probably wouldn’t have got with being in the academy.”
When it comes to the renewed discussion of systemic racism when it relates to policing, Ussery said he just doesn’t know yet how it will affect his job day to day.
“A lot of this, I guess it’s hard to tell what you’re going to get,” Ussery said. “Some people don’t like cops, some people do. I just want to treat everybody fair and equally and treat everybody with respect, the way they should be treated.”
Ultimately, graduation was a moment to celebrate for Ussery. His wife, Maxine, who is a dispatch operator, pinned her husband’s badge on his chest and the couple shared a look of accomplishment.
Ussery is excited to get involved in department programs like the Police Activities League, which typically focuses on sports along with other activities, as a way to engage with area youth.
“I mean that’s what I did all my life was sports,” Ussery said. “That’s a huge, major way that I’ve always given back.”
While the world is a bit crazy right now, Ussery said he is exciting to be making progress toward being a full -fledged police officer.
“I’m excited to get to the next process,” Ussery said, of heading to his field training car. “It has been a long time.”
Britton Ballard, 23, has always wanted to be a police officer.
“I’ve wanted to be a police officer since I was 6 or younger, just ever since I could remember,” Ballard said. “I always wanted to protect people, help people, those sort of things, be somebody that people can look up to.”
Ballard grew up in Spokane with a large family. As the youngest of the family, Ballard watched his older brothers get into some trouble.
“My brother, one of them, you know, he’s been in jail and he deserves to be there,” Ballard said.
Another one of his brothers also had a run in with the law but has since turned his life around with the help of his arresting officer, Ballard said.
“The officer that arrested him kind of flipped his whole life around,” Ballard said. “He went from gang violence and drugs – everything – to having been clean and sober for six years.”
Ballard saw his brother turn his life around and even thank the police officer who arrested him.
“I want to be able to change someone’s life for the better whether that be saving their life or just kind of guiding them in a new direction,” Ballard said.
After graduating from Mead High School at 17, Ballard took a year of community college classes before enlisting in the Marine Corps.
There he was an infantry squad leader, and after four years, Ballard decided it was time to be closer to family.
“I loved the Marines I served with. The Marine Corps itself there were some things I was a fan of and some things that I wasn’t,” Ballard said. “I missed my family so I decided to come back.”
Once at the police academy, Ballard was selected by training staff to be class president, despite being one of the youngest in the group of 36 classmates.
Ballard attributes his leadership ability to not only his time in the Marines but the respect he gives those around him.
“I think everything just comes with a general respect,” Ballard said. “I show you respect you show me respect.”
He said he also had to accept responsibility for the group’s shortcomings.
“Everything bad that happens is going to be my fault,” Ballard said.
“Everything good that happens is going to be what comes of everybody working together.”
Then five weeks into academy COVID-19 separated the class. Trainees from the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office and other regional law enforcement agencies were sent home and SPD recruits continued training on their own.
The class remained close despite the separation with Ballard frequently checking in with everyone.
“I think we’re a really close class so I don’t think it was as hard as it could have been,” Ballard said.
By the time the class reunited five weeks later, Ballard and the other SPD recruits were ahead in the curriculum but relished the opportunity for additional instruction.
“It was nice in a way that we had already done things that they were about to have to do,” Ballard said of the returning students. “It did help me have a better understanding of knowledge of the information because now I wasn’t only having to learn it, take a test on it and know it, but I was having to teach it, which kind of gives you a better understanding of it.”
Class did look different though. Defensive tactics instruction, which requires close physical contact between students, was largely suspended. Trainees were split up into three groups and received instruction at different times but it was Ballard’s job to keep them all connected.
He spent the weeks apart replying to numerous group chats while continuing his training with the SPD recruits.
During that time, civil unrest spread across the country following the killing of George Floyd.
Ballard delved into the shift in public opinion on police officers during his speech at the class’s graduation.
“When I was little people would tell me all the great things about being a police officer … then the narrative is changed,” he said in his speech. “Now people tell me that it is a corrupt job, a brutality job, a racist job. They asked me, are you sure you want to be a police officer in this new climate? I think most of my classmates, if not all, would agree with me when I say, yes.”
For Ballard, that speech and graduation day was something he had waited for his whole life.
“I’m just excited to uphold those values that our police department has created and show the world that we’re here to do what we say and what we swear to,” Ballard said.
After he finished his speaking, Ballard’s father, Scott Ballard, pinned his badge on his chest. Ballard turned to hug his dad with a massive smile on his face.
Trisha Lemming, 36, or Trish as her classmates call her, was the smallest in her class at the police academy but had one of the biggest hearts.
Lemming spent years as a stay-at-home mom home-schooling her four children in the West Central neighborhood.
In the summer of 2017, Lemming had an experience that pushed her to change her whole life and become a cop.
Lemming befriended a neighbor and their children would often play together in the neighborhood.
After a few months, Lemming started to see some concerning signs that the mother was on drugs. She contacted Child Protective Services, who already had an open case.
“We’ve had a couple drug houses on our block that it’s tough to deal with, but I guess I’m really open with my kids,” Lemming said. “I talked to them about the heartbreak as we watched a kid get removed from his home that we had become close to.”
That heartbreak was a motivator for Lemming, who loves her neighborhood.
“I love West Central,” Lemming said. “We have so many amazing neighbors.”
Not long after the incident with CPS, Lemming saw Officer Stephanie Kennedy taking photos of stolen property in West Central. A group of kids had gathered around the officer and were fervently asking her questions, Lemming recalled. Kennedy patiently answered the children, giving them a positive interaction with police, Lemming said.
That night Lemming went home and asked her husband, Scott, what he thought of her becoming a police officer. He was beyond supportive, Lemming said.
“I wanted to make a difference,” Lemming said. “Just seeing what’s going on in our city, seeing drug problems and crime, seeing the heartbreak from all that – I kind of had that light bulb moment, why not me?”
Lemming began doing research into the Spokane Police Department’s hiring process and realized she would have to go back to school. She began taking general education classes at a local community college, working out, and training in Krav Maga.
“I needed to be OK with people being in my bubble and punching me,” Lemming said.
After two years of preparation, Lemming was hired by SPD and started at the academy in February.
“It was very surreal and I just couldn’t believe it,” Lemming said. “I worked toward it and it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is really happening.’ ”
Starting at the academy meant putting her children into public school for the first time while her husband worked at the Spokane Regional Emergency Communications Center.
“It’s going to be hard for sure, especially with four kids,” Lemming said, during the first week of academy. “They’re starting to feel that a little bit.”
Then five weeks into the academy, COVID-19 caused significant changes. Rather than continuing to learn as a regional class, SPD students continued on together, awaiting the return of their classmates.
“It was kind of a mix of feelings,” Lemming said. “It’s weird when not just us but the world was shutting down, so that was very uncertain but going into this career you kind of just have to have the go with it kind of attitude.”
Weeks later, as nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism grabbed people’s attention. Lemming and her classmates watched from the sidelines as their soon-to-be coworkers tear -gassed people in downtown Spokane.
The protests brought calls to defund the police and shift to a more community-oriented policing strategy . For Lemming, someone who got into policing to help her community watching the protests was another heartbreak.
“The whole thing was heartbreaking to me, just across the board watching our nation go down that road again and me wanting to go into this career field and help people,” Lemming said. “Sometimes people will see the badge unfortunately and not see me and unfortunately some people have tarnished the badge. So, I absolutely think there are going to be people that I have to prove myself to, and I don’t have a problem with that.”
However, Lemming said she believes in SPD and their approach to policing. She hopes to eventually become a neighborhood resource officer and remain connected to the community she loves.
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