Late last month, nearly two dozen recruit trainees at the Massachusetts State Police Academy trainees were injured—in two separate incidents occurring several days apart—while reportedly being forced to do "bear crawl" exercises across hot pavement.
According to the Boston Globe, State Police Superintendent Christopher Mason ordered the launch of an internal investigation after he learned about reports that recruits had suffered blisters to their hands and feet during exercises that were "not authorized as part of the training curriculum, added no value to the training, and contradicted the expectations."
In fact, State Police Director of Communications David Procopio said in a statement that the exercises "contradicted the expectations that MSP Command Staff explicitly conveyed to Academy staff prior to the start of the current Recruit Training Troop."
Trust Erased in an Instant
It's one thing to make a mistake—to err is human—but it's an entirely different matter when that mistake is in direct contravention of explicitly stated commands. That sort of mistake generally results in disciplinary action.
In Massachusetts, two of academy's command staff—Detective Lieutenant Scott McDonald, the academy commandant, and Lieutenant Brian Gladu, the executive officer responsible for oversight of the academy's day-to-day operations—have been removed and placed in assignments elsewhere in the department. Superintendent Mason also removed the two troopers who served as the drill instructors who directly supervised the exercises.
Procopio said that the ongoing investigation is intended to "identify and hold accountable" any other academy staff found to be in any way "responsible for the unauthorized training."
When line officers engage in conduct perceived by the public, the press, or political elites to be unethical, any already existing anti-police sentiment is exacerbated. Trust that takes years—if not decades—to build can be erased in an instant.
When the individuals tasked with recruiting and training young people and setting them off on their law enforcement career behave unethically, those new recruits are at risk of themselves damaging the relationship between the police and the community at some point along their career trajectory.
Guarding Against Malpractice
Law enforcement training shouldn't resemble scenes from "Full Metal Jacket" or "An Officer and Gentleman"—readers who are too young to get those references should do a quick search on Netflix.
As has been previously stated in this space, police training can be inherently dangerous business—ankles are sometimes broken on confidence courses and firearms safety rules are sometimes broken on the square range. In most cases, police training injuries are the result of predictable—and therefore preventable—accidents.
Stricter adherence to basic safety precautions can ameliorate those problems and mitigate the damage done by them. However, when the cultural environment set by the trainers themselves creates an intrinsically flawed infrastructure, people are almost certain to get hurt.
Trainers who willfully neglect policy guidelines, safety procedures, and/or simple common sense cease at that moment to be trainers, but instead become something wholly different—something unproductive and unwarranted. They become bad examples.
Recruits and officers in the early stages of field training carefully observe the behaviors of those who are senior to them. They watch their decisions and the subsequent outcomes.
In Massachusetts, all but one of the trainees who was injured in the unnecessary "bear crawl" across scorching hot pavement has returned to the academy. However, one recruit resigned "not because he would have been medically unable to continue, but rather with dissatisfaction that the incident occurred" Procopio said in a statement.
The job of simply attracting qualified candidates to seek a job in law enforcement is already a monumentally difficult task. Losing even one once-willing recruit because of such an incident is unhelpful to say the least.