By Mary Jane Smetanka
For police officers who do a hard job day after day, pressure and a desire for results can blur the line between ethical and improper actions.
Does a search warrant really matter that much when you know a bad guy should be off the streets? What’s the harm in taking a shortcut if it keeps the community safe?
Reminding police that their jobs require them to respect the constitutional rights of all people is the basis of the new True North Constitutional Policing educational course. The free online training, which can be used by Minnesota police officers to fulfill required continuing education credits, reflects increased state attention to law enforcement after high-profile cases involving controversial police conduct.
True North deals with issues like implicit bias, cultural competency, and the respect for citizen rights anchored in the document law enforcement officers swear allegiance to—the U.S. Constitution.
“The big goal is to refocus officers on why they do what they do,” says Lora Setter, executive director of True North. “It focuses on the nobility of the work, the history, and yes, that we’re here to bring order but also to protect liberties that people continue to fight for.”
Belle Plaine Police Chief Tom Stolee and the 16 officers in his department took the course last year. He calls it “a great reminder of what we are really modeled after,” and says that’s important in a time when policing is more stressful than ever.
“This is a complaint-based job,” he says. “Nobody is happy to get a citation. Nobody is happy to go to jail. We see the hurt, we see the sadness, sometimes we have to tell people their family isn’t coming home. It’s protecting and serving that makes the job special. We need something to keep us on track in a spinning world.”
Noble vs. noble cause
The online training was developed partly because it’s hard to get officers off the street and into classrooms, Setter says. Everyone around the state can access an online class. Officers can even sit in their squad car and take it.
True North takes pains not to be preachy. A recurring theme of the roughly five-hour training is “noble policing”—holding the ideals of individual rights and other constitutional principles high as officers do their job—versus “noble-cause policing,” where officers bend rules and take shortcuts to reach their desired end.
While noble-cause policing may seem altruistic because it is often done to protect the public, it may violate the Constitution and can change the culture of a law enforcement department so that violating rules becomes the norm. It also breeds public distrust of police.
The True North course teaches that morally strong officers must accept that constitutional rights may obstruct their policing, but following the rules earns the respect of the people they serve.
Though much attention is placed on crime statistics, surveys show that ordinary people put more value on police fairness than effectiveness, according to the True North class. Procedural justice— being consistent and even-handed, listening, and treating people with dignity and respect—supports law enforcement legitimacy, the training says.
What the course covers
The True North class goes all the way back to the Revolutionary War to remind officers why Americans value their freedoms, exploring the historical roots of search and seizure rules and the Bill of Rights. Then the course explores the history of policing, racial inequality, the science of implicit bias, racial profiling, and the effect of bias on the communities police serve.
Police often learn in their college coursework that American police forces were modeled after the British police forces Robert Peel set up in London in the 1820s. But True North says the first American police forces were formed earlier in southern states, where their job was to make sure that slaves remained slaves.
The course draws a line from that history and later police activity that upheld harsh segregation laws to the suspicions some communities have of police today.
Later training segments deal with the importance of writing complete and accurate reports and giving honest court testimony. “It is not your job to get convictions,” the course narrator says.
New Minnesota rules on property forfeiture are also explained, and the course gives examples of police departments that were corrupted when officers made a habit of going around rules they thought were standing in the way of their jobs.
Law enforcement is noble work, the narrator says. Police need to think of their legacy and how people will remember them. What stories do they want people to tell about them once they’ve left the field?
Unlike many online courses, True North is highly interactive. Parts of it are funny. Each segment is punctuated by quizzes and ends with a test that users have to pass before moving on to the next section.
Each course segment features an exercise with story boards that walk participants through situations like executing a warrant or responding to a resident who called police because he saw someone he doesn’t think should be in the neighborhood. Depending on the choices the True North participant makes, the story evolves, and the program diplomatically suggests better ways to handle the situation.
Good reviews so far
Fourteen law enforcement agencies were involved in developing the True North training. As of this spring, about 400 law enforcement personnel had taken the course, which was refined as participants gave feedback.
Most of that feedback has been positive, says Setter, who worked for 20 years in law enforcement with experience as a patrol officer, investigator, sergeant, and lieutenant, and later taught in university public safety programs. Some veteran officers have told her they wished such training had been available when they were new on the job decades ago.
The vast majority of officers do great work and the point is not to blame or shame, she says. Everyone can use additional training to get better at their job. “The goal is to bring better success to law enforcement,” Setter says. “This is a reminder of the importance of balancing order and liberty.”
Striving for continuous improvement
Plymouth was one of the police departments involved in the development of True North. Police Chief Michael Goldstein required all 80 of his officers to take the course. He says it fits with requirements added by the 2017 state Legislature that police have continuing education on such topics as implicit bias, de-escalation, and cultural competencies.
“Anyone who wants to rest on their laurels and believes they know enough to manage their [law enforcement] work is wrong,” Goldstein says. “In our organization, we’re looking for continuous improvement.”
Law enforcement has to face up to public concerns after a number of controversies about police conduct nationwide, he adds.
“There has been some concern and for very good reason,” he says. “I believe we can do what’s appropriate and what the community expects to keep them safe and to provide extraordinary service.”
He says that in college and in all his years of policing, he did not know about the links between establishment of American police forces and slavery, and the information was shocking. That history reverberates today.
“Though generations have passed, the sentiments that were generated have not dissipated,” he says, and that’s something law enforcement needs to keep in mind today.
Goldstein gave his officers time to take the course on the job. While “not everyone was doing cartwheels having to spend time in front of a computer screen,” he says, no one questioned the objectives behind the material and some officers really appreciated the course and what they learned from it. The younger officers were especially comfortable with the online format.
One of the Plymouth officers who took the course was Sgt. Curtis Smith, who has been on the force for 32 years. True North’s interactivity kept him from being bored, he says, and with more mandated training for law enforcement, he thinks an online class is a good way to get the education without having to sit in a classroom. True North provides worthwhile reminders for even veteran officers, he says.
“When we get irritated at the hoops we have to jump through, we have to look back at the reasons those rules are important,” he says.
A great refresher
Chief Stolee of Belle Plaine believes every law enforcement officer should take training like that offered through True North. It was a great refresher on some of the constitutional requirements he learned about in school, he says, and he liked that it dealt with soft skills like diplomatically interacting with people.
“You have to listen,” he says. “Communication is the deciding factor.”
Officer Brian Vycital is one of the Belle Plaine officers who took the training. Stolee gave officers time at work to complete the True North course, and Vycital says he enjoyed it.
“We didn’t get anything like this in school,” the 15-year officer says. “That was more practical. This is more about how we connect with the community.”
Vycital says most police are people- oriented. But the work has become harder, and he feels like he’s dealing more with the fallout of social issues. He liked being reminded by True North that his job is a higher calling.
“Most officers never have to deal with being accused of any wrongdoing, but this and the national issues force you to confront it,” he says. “It makes you take a look at yourself. It makes you feel like you’re involved with something bigger than yourself. This is a training that [all law enforcement officers] will learn from.”
Mary Jane Smetanka is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.