Police academy follies

Just about everyone gets a passing grade at the state's school for cops, as the case of a much-investigated Carnation cop reveals.

What do you call a police academy student who graduates at the bottom of his class? Officer. That raises some troubling questions given that it appears to be difficult for a student cop to actually flunk out of the police academy.

Consider the case of Frank Sloan, who for the last few months has been on leave from the Carnation Police Department during investigations by the FBI, the King County Sheriff's Department, and the Association of Washington Cities, the city's insurer. Everybody has kept the precise nature of their investigations hush-hush. Concluding its inquiry last month, the Sheriff's Department would say only that it found no criminal behavior. And the city of Carnation, which received a report from the Association of Washington Cities last week, isn't talking until it decides whether to take action against Sloan.

But as you might expect from a case warranting this much attention, there have been "a number of allegations" against Sloan that are "very serious," according to city administrator Randy Suko. Although several city residents have been vocal in their support for Sloan, at least one person is on record as feeling threatened by him: James Russell, a police officer himself. He works for the state Department of Natural Resources and lives in Carnation.

As detailed by Sloan in memos filed with the police department, he heard in October that Russell was investigating a reported gang rape in town, a report that Sloan had found to be baseless. In November, Russell filed a petition for an anti-harassment order against Sloan, writing that Carnation "police officers have warned me that Sloan has threatened me with physical harm," that "he slowly drives by my residence and my wife's place of employment," and that Russell had been receiving hang-up calls at home. Reached at home by phone, Sloan says he "never violated anyone's rights," but declines to comment further.

While the county's Northeast District Court chose not to grant an anti-harassment order, the suggestion that Sloan could be intimidating, if true, would come as no surprise in light of his record at the state's Basic Law Enforcement Academy in Burien, which trains virtually all police officers in the state. An evaluation dated March 8, 1996 describes his just-completed three-month performance there:

"Recruit needs improvement in the areas of interpersonal skills and use of force," the evaluation reads. "Recruit Sloan has good officer presence. In fact sometimes he may have too much. Sloan always seeks to control and sometimes may try and overcontrol a person or situation."

The evaluation then details Sloan's participation in an exercise known as "street survival," whereby recruits act out roles of officer and suspect during a mock arrest. "During street survival the day before graduation Recruit Sloan had a padded baton and was giving verbal commands to a suspect. During the scenario he yelled at the suspect to get his hands up. The suspect put his hands up and Recruit Sloan struck him with the baton. Sloan then yelled at the suspect to put his hands down and when the suspect put his hands down, Sloan struck him again in the leg. When Sloan finally got the suspect on the ground face down, he took his elbow and pushed the suspect's face into ground.... Most recruits did not want to be his partner during defensive tactics [the class in which this exercise is done] because he would end up hurting them."

The evaluation ends: "For Recruit Sloan to become a good officer he must be able to control himself before he can control the streets. Recruit was ranked 25 out of 26." Low as that ranking is, it still qualified him to graduate.

Both law enforcement officials and their watchdogs say it is rare for such problematic behavior to show up so early in a police officer's career. "I've seen lots of academy records," says former Bellevue Police Chief Don Van Blaricom, who now spends his time testifying around the country on both sides of police misconduct cases. "And I've never seen anything like that," he says, after hearing Sloan's evaluation. Yet it is disturbing to think that even a small percentage of recruits could graduate from the academy with such warning signs. How could it happen?

Apparently, the academy isn't structured to sift out recruits on the basis of bullying, despite the allegations of brutality that have dogged police nationwide for years. Academy Commander Mike Painter explains that the academy grades recruits mainly on academic tests in such subjects as criminal law and patrol procedure. Use of force is an academic subject too, requiring the study of relevant law. But when recruits demonstrate how they would behave in mock street scenes, their use of force isn't a criteria in their grade. According to Painter, endurance under stress is the primary purpose of the street survival exercise: Before the mock arrest, the recruit playing the officer jumps into a ring with an experienced boxer. The recruit passes if he lasts the full three minutes of the exercise. "The only way you can fail is by not participating," Painter says.

In Sloan's case, whether he was even told that his streetside manner was inappropriate is not clear. The evaluation says Sloan was warned about his use of force. "I never heard that," says Sloan, who maintains that any perceived overzealousness was simply a matter of taking seriously academy instructions about "survival."

In theory, Painter says a recruit who showed an abusive disposition despite warnings could be kicked out for "insubordination." And he says recruits would be given the boot for "egregious" acts such as criminal behavior or cheating on a test. In reality, though, few who enter the academy leave without a badge. Painter estimates that of the last 1,100 to 1,200 academy students, a dozen failed to graduate, including those who left because of injuries.

One reason the academy expels so few may be that it usually defers that decision to the police department that sponsored the recruit. According to Sloan's file, an academy sergeant did suggest to the Medina Police Department, where he had been working as a volunteer reserve, that it withdraw its sponsorship. Interestingly, the reason noted in a memo from the sergeant was not Sloan's conduct during mock arrests but during a confrontation with another recruit while eating dinner in a cafeteria. Witnessed by nine others who submitted written statements, Sloan became enraged when Recruit Erik Lee squeezed by him without saying "Excuse me."

"At this point Sloan physically assaulted me by pushing me and called me a 'douche bag,'" writes Lee in his statement.

"I said, 'Excuse me?!'

"Sloan said, 'I called you a douche bag, you know, what a woman cleans her pussy with.'"

Though Sloan eventually issued a written apology, Sgt. Annette Spicuzza called thenĀ­Medina Police Chief Joe Race to tell him that "Recruit Sloan's behavior was unprofessional and hints at an individual who might have a problem controlling his temper." Race agreed, according to Spicuzza's memo, but in a subsequent meeting informed her that he had decided to keep Sloan in the academy. The only discipline Sloan faced was being ousted from his position as class vice president.

When he graduated, though, he didn't go back to Medina, instead joining the tiny, three-person Carnation force. Why would Carnation hire Sloan despite his academy record? The city won't say. It has already failed to renew the contract of the man who presumably made that decision, public safety director Gunnar Otness, who was put on leave several days after Sloan pending the investigations. But Van Blaricom, the former Bellevue police chief, ventures that "smaller agencies have more difficulty attracting recruits. The pay is less and there's less real police work to be done."

Indeed, Carnation might not have been the most desperate. Remember that Sloan was ranked 25 out of 26 in his class, which raises the question: Where is no. 26 working?

 
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