Inside the Police Academy: An Interview with Samantha J. Simon

Inside the Police Academy

An Interview with Samantha J. Simon, author of Before the Badge: How Academy Training Shapes Police Violence

A blue book cover with white font reading, "Before the Badge: How Academy Training Shapes Police Violence" by Samantha J. Simon.

You spent a year researching this book at four large, municipal police departments all located within the same southern state. You did tactical training alongside future police officers, and interviewed around 40 people – 38 officers, and 2 people who didn’t complete the academy training. What was this intensive research experience like for you, physically, intellectually, and emotionally? 

I went into this project really open-minded – and very curious – about what I would discover at these police academies, but also about what the experience would be like for me physically and emotionally. Before doing this study, I had very limited exposure to any kind of institution that followed a very regimented, strict structure – I didn’t come from a first responder or military family, and I didn’t play sports growing up. Because of this, when I first got to the academy, I found it to be a very anxiety-inducing environment. There were a dizzying number of rules, there was a lot of shouting happening, and the physical fitness training was quite grueling.

The cadets at these academies have incredibly long days, so as a result, I did too. Cadets usually get to the academy anywhere between 5 – 7 AM, they spend 8-12 hours on the campus in classrooms as well as gyms practicing tactics and exercising, and then spend time after work studying for their exams or working out even more. My goal was to get as close to the cadets’ experience as possible, so I also had very early mornings and long, physically exhausting days, followed by hours of writing up my field notes each night. Although it was certainly demanding, I do think that it was really important that I followed this very embodied, embedded approach to doing this research.

Your interview with Dale was really striking. Dale is a former police officer who trains civilians on how to use firearms, what to say to the police when they’ve shot someone, and what legal rights protect them. To quote from your book, at the end of your interview he said to you, “I want to thank you for not asking me that question… Have I ever taken a life,” and you note that you didn’t know what to say at the time. What was your experience like speaking with people like Dale, and has your response to his comment changed since writing the book? Notably, you conducted your research before the 2020 protest movement for Black Lives Matter – do you think your interactions with police officers like Dale would be different now, post-2020? 

In general, I found that building rapport with officers took time and effort – one reason for this is because, as I outline in the book, officers are quite wary of outsiders. In particular, they are suspicious of reporters, who they feel are dedicated to always casting police officers as the villain in any story. Over and over again, officers described feeling like even in situations where they were in the right or made good decisions, reporters – particularly those affiliated with left-leaning media – were determined to villainize the police. Although I was not a reporter, I was certainly initially perceived as reporter-adjacent, in that I was an outsider to the institution coming in to investigate what was going on at these academies. Of course, I cannot say this with any certainty since I have not returned to these academies after 2020, but I suspect that there might be an even more heightened sense of defensiveness and fixation on self preservation among officers now than there was pre-2020. I am not sure that I would get the same level of access to these departments if I were starting this study now as I did when I began this field work in 2018.

How do police academies define what makes a “good” or a “bad” police officer?

There are multiple stages in the onboarding process at academies that continually test if someone is a good “fit” for policing. The first is the hiring process, which can take an applicant anywhere from three months to over a year to complete and involves physical fitness and general comprehension tests, interviews, thorough background investigations, polygraph exams, and medical and psychiatric evaluations. At each step in this process, the hiring officers are trying to evaluate if the applicant has what it takes to be a “good” police officer. Formally, this means they want to ensure that each applicant is honest, trustworthy, disciplined, brave, and responsible, all of which of course seem like positive traits. However, I also found that in addition to these formal requirements, there was a “blueprint” for who the hiring officers thought would be a good cultural fit. They wanted to hire people who would fit into the existing culture of policing, which required a certain personality, an expression of the right motivation for pursuing policing, an alignment with the right kind of politics, and willingness to use a certain type of violence. These were the people who got into the institution and had the opportunity to attend the academy. 

This process continued into training. If the cadets wanted to make it to graduation, there were similarly official and unofficial requirements. They needed to show up on time, follow the rules, and pass their written exams, physical fitness tests, and firearms exams. However, the instructors were also constantly evaluating if the cadets could look, act, and sound like police officers. Importantly, these unofficial requirements of “fit” revolved around the use of violence. The academy taught cadets the nuts and bolts of their new job – for example, how to use the computer system, how to write reports, how to package evidence, things like that – but it also socialized them into using state violence. At the academy, they learned to be fearful and wary of everyone, to profile what they call “criminality,” and to use their bodies to control and hurt other people.

When cadets did not adapt to these unofficial requirements, they did not make it to graduation. These cadets either voluntarily chose to leave or were removed by their supervisors. This happened, for example, with Adam, who was essentially fired just a few days before he was scheduled to graduate from the academy. Adam was white, blond, about six feet tall, and thin, but despite this, he had trouble embodying the masculine ideals of the institution. He was not particularly athletic or muscular, and his instructors often made fun of his lanky figure, his use of literary vocabulary, and his slow, methodical manner of speech. Mostly, though, his instructors mocked Adam for being physically weak and bad at fighting.

I interviewed Adam a few months after he had been fired, and during our conversation, he described feeling like he had a target on his back while at the academy, a sentiment that I saw play out and other cadets openly described to me in other interviews. Ultimately, Adam told me, he could not “punch hard enough to make them [the instructors] shut up about it.” The “environment” at the academy, he went on, was “more focused on your ability to punch the problem,” which was not what he expected, nor did it align with the image of a police officer he had upon entering the academy. Adam’s instructors often set him up to be publicly humiliated during his training. Once, for example, they purposely paired him up with one of the top cadets in the class, who weighed at least 70 pounds more than Adam and had undergone U.S. Navy SEAL training, to fight in a mud pit. “I had spaghetti arms by the time we were done,” Adam recalled. Adam was not a good fit for policing because he did not engage in the kind of violence the institution demanded. Adam’s classmates who did make it through the academy were successfully aligned themselves with the institution’s existing culture – one which was steeped with violence.

You describe police academy training as fostering two mindsets that are key to creating what you call “the socialization of state violence”: an “Us vs. Them mentality,” and the idea of “police work as warfare, officers as warriors.” Could you explain each of these concepts, and describe what they look like day-to-day in the police academy? 

At the academy, new cadets are socialized into the world of policing. When I talk about the “socialization of state violence,” I am referring to this socialization process, which I found required an alignment with a worldview that emphasized violence. The two concepts you asked about – an “Us vs. Them” mentality and “warrior policing” are both components of this socialization of state violence that cadets experience at the academy. With regards to the first – an “Us vs. Them” mentality – these police academies encouraged cadets to look at the world in two groups: “us,” the police, and “them,” a cast of others who presented a range of threats, either physical or institutional. “Them” includes “bad guys,” the media, activists, and the general public. Learning who was considered either a friend or a foe to the police really was an essential part of the socialization into state violence.

As cadets were learning that their world was full of adversaries, they also learned that their role in this dangerous world was to be “warriors.” Instructors insisted that cadets be ready for “battle,” which required that cadets learn how to identify their enemy by profiling so-called “bad guys.” and that they be willing to do whatever it takes, up to and including killing someone, to make it home at the end of each shift. Once, for example, during a de-escalation class, the instructor showed a PowerPoint slide with a picture of General James Mattis with the following text overlaid: “Be polite. Be professional. But have a plan to kill everybody you meet.” The instructor warned the class, “Even though we’re talking about de-escalation today, I’m not watering down officer safety. Do not ever drop your guard.”

This warrior mentality was incredibly gendered and racialized, where cadets who were not white, masculine men struggled through where they fit in this narrative. The warrior approach to policing positions white men as the protectors of white women and children from men of color, especially Black men. Black officers, then—especially but not exclusively Black men—had to contend with the academy and the police force framing Black people as threatening and criminal. Within this mindset, women are supposed to be protected, not the protectors—this sexist mindset, of course , created challenges for women officers. The women officers I met explained that they had to work twice as hard to prove themselves as capable, but they never got the chance when men officers insisted on taking over, either by protecting women officers from physical threats or even by disciplining women who protected men.

In your book, you describe an officer teaching de-escalation training who makes cadets watch a brutal video of a police officer being killed at a traffic stop. After the video plays, he tells the cadets, “I hate going to funerals. Don’t make me go to your funeral because you were using your words when you shouldn’t be.” How was this particular video being used during police training, and what is the overall message about de-escalation training? 

The video you’re referencing is footage from a dash camera showing the 1998 murder of Deputy Kyle Dinkheller in Georgia. It is very hard to watch, and it was shown at every academy I visited in a range of contexts including, as you note, during the De-Escalation Class at Rollingwood Police Department. This was certainly not the only video showing an officer being killed that was included in the academy curriculum, and indeed, videos of officers being beaten, hit with vehicles, or killed were often shown to cadets during their training. These videos really brought to life, in an incredibly graphic and gruesome way, the stakes at hand for the cadets, where instructors often followed up the videos with warnings about the importance of always remaining vigilant and ready for violence. If they did not, the logic follows, they could meet the same fate as the officers shown in these videos.

At the time that I conducted this research, de-escalation training was not mandated by the state, so these academies had opted to include this training in their curriculums. However, the officers I met generally described de-escalation as just a “buzzword” and maintained that the police had always strived to de-escalate situations and was simply nothing new. In the de-escalation classes I observed, instructors encouraged the cadets to approach civilians politely where possible but insisted that the cadets’ number one priority at all times should be officer safety.

You describe a lot of the physical training cadets must undergo, including being tased, pepper sprayed, and learning techniques that are specifically designed to hurt people. What are police cadets supposed to learn from these experiences?

I would say the experiences you mention fall into one of two categories. First, you highlighted the requirement that cadets be shot with a TASER gun and sprayed in the eyes with OC spray. Officially, I was told by instructors that cadets were required to complete these exercises so that they would know first-hand the level of force that they were using if they decided to deploy their TASER gun or OC spray while on duty. The idea here was that having gone through it themselves, cadets would be judicious in their decision to use these less-lethal force options. However, more than this, these exercises presented an opportunity for the cadets to physically demonstrate to their instructors their commitment to becoming a police officer. There are videos of these exercises at a range of academies floating around on YouTube, and in them, you can see how intensely painful it is. On OC spray day, for example, after getting sprayed in the eyes with OC spray, the cadets paced around the parking lot of the academy, snot running out of their noses, eyes totally bloodshot, many of them openly sobbing until the pain wore off.

The second part of training you mentioned was the cadets’ defensive tactics instruction, in which they learned physical strategies and techniques to control and/or hurt another person. This instruction started off with the cadets learning how to issue verbal commands and position their bodies to maintain a physical advantage. Then, the cadets learned how to apply handcuffs, frisk and search someone, and take someone to the ground. Finally, the cadets learned that at some point in an interaction, they needed to move from “control” to “doing damage,” meaning using techniques with the goal of issuing pain. This included learning how to exploit pressure points, use different holds, and use their hands, feet, and weapons, like batons, to strike another person. Importantly, for most cadets, these physical skills did not necessarily come naturally, but rather, required a lot of repetition before it became second nature. Displaying a comfort with, and ability to, engage in this kind of physical violence was a necessary part of cadets’ socialization into state violence, and their making it to graduation.

“The socialization of state violence” amongst the police, as you define it, takes on specific gendered and racialized attitudes – namely that white male police officers think of themselves as the protectors of white women and children, and are fighting against people of color. Do you think it’s possible for these attitudes to change within the police academy? What do you think the future holds for police academy training, given the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the far-right retaliation?

I am unfortunately not very optimistic about the potential for change within the culture of policing. I do not believe it’s impossible, but I am disheartened by this country’s cycle of crises in policing, in which repeated instances of police brutality and corruption then result in public outrage and calls for action. For nearly 100 years, US presidents have assembled commissions to investigate abuse and corruption within the criminal legal system, and if you look at their reports, they outline eerily similar concerns and recommendations for reform each time. This happened in 1931 with President Hoover, in 1967 with President Johnson, and in 2015 with President Obama.

There is, of course, disagreement about what the best pathway forward looks like for U.S. policing. Some scholars, activists, and policy makers want to continue pushing for reforms to make policing more fair, equitable, and just. Others – myself included – think that these kinds of reform efforts have historically been unsuccessful because they do not actually change the function of the police, which is intertwined with violence and hierarchy. Without changing the institution itself – which includes the selection and training of cadets – we will continue to just see more of the same.

Photograph of author Samantha J. Simon.

Samantha J. Simon is Assistant Professor in the School of Government & Public Policy and the School of Sociology at The University of Arizona.

Website | + posts