Inside the School Teaching Cops When It’s OK to Kill

A rare look inside a training course for midcareer cops
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Jim Glennon

Photographer: Brad Swonetz for Bloomberg Businessweek

Forty cops are in a classroom, watching recent footage of protesters in San Francisco denouncing the police. “Your children are ashamed of you,” a black woman in the video tells a black officer, who looks away. “Coward!” others shout. A young demonstrator walks up to a cop and sticks out his middle finger. A female officer trips, and the demonstrators laugh.

The volume is way up, and the cops in the room are leaning back in their chairs, crossing their arms, getting tense. Jim Glennon steps to the front of the room and stops the video. Glennon, 59, spent 29 years as an officer in Lombard, a suburb of Chicago, at one point running county homicide investigations. He’s 6-foot-1, 210 pounds, and has the gravelly voice and bearing of the desk sergeant on the 1980s TV show Hill Street Blues who told cops to “be careful out there” before the squad cars rolled. “Welcome to our world,” Glennon says. “It’s as bad as it’s been since the ’60s and ’70s.”

The officers nod in agreement. At one point, Glennon asks how many of them have been spat on. Most raise their hands.They’re sitting at long tables in a bland room in a facility in Urbana, Ill. A former county nursing home, it’s now occupied by the Illinois Law Enforcement Alarm System, created in 2002 to coordinate statewide responses to terrorism and disasters. The lobby features a mannequin in tactical pants and mirrored sunglasses, a table of books and brochures—among them, Developing the Survival Attitude and Online Predators—and a big-screen TV tuned to Fox News.

Glennon runs Calibre Press, one of the country’s largest private police training companies, and this is the start of a two-day seminar, Street Survival, which has been taught to hundreds of thousands of officers over four decades. Since buying Calibre Press in 2012, Glennon has expanded its offerings from 35 classes a year to 190, with titles such as Surviving Hidden Weapons, Arresting Communication, and The Bulletproof Warrior, putting Glennon or one of his eight instructors in front of 20,000 officers annually. Every week officers around the country get continuing education from similar classes taught by retired police or active ones. These classes are the conduits through which the profession’s generational knowledge, tactics, and hard-won lessons spread.

Like many companies in the business, Calibre promotes a “warrior” mentality for police, likening cops to soldiers and focusing on conflict, vigilance, and martial skills. The purpose of Street Survival, according to the course description, is to “keep officers alive and give them the tools to enjoy a successful career in law enforcement.” In other words, how not to get killed or fired. Heart attacks, suicides, car accidents, and errors of judgment are all discussed, but most pervasive is the sense that an officer unaware of his surroundings is doomed to assault from an unseen threat—that any routine traffic stop can end in a shootout and that the only rational response is to be in a state of lethal alert at all times.

How programs such as Street Survival emphasize danger may explain much about how officers meet the public. Outside the classroom, the nation is again transfixed by the issue of police brutality. As class gets under way this morning in June, a cell phone video of a cop pulling his gun on frightened teenagers at a pool party in McKinney, Texas, is going viral.

At a June Bulletproof Warrior seminar in Vegas.

At a June Bulletproof Warrior seminar in Vegas.

Photographer: Brad Swonetz for Bloomberg Businessweek

Glennon’s students are mostly white men in their 20s and 30s, some with firearms strapped to the belts of their cargo pants, joined by a handful of women, black officers, and older men. They’re from Illinois towns such as Danville, Champaign, and Normal—the kind of unremarkable Midwestern places that Ferguson, Mo., used to be until a white cop killed a black teenager there a year ago, igniting protests. Since then, sometimes violent demonstrations have followed similar incidents in Baltimore, Cleveland, Albuquerque, and elsewhere. One student in the class interrupts to say it doesn’t help when the president sympathizes with protesters. “It doesn’t,” Glennon says. “It’s easy to demonize the cops.” He tells them law enforcement ranked as less respected than medicine in a recent Gallup poll—even though, he says, doctors’ mistakes kill 98,000 people a year while police kill 400. “And they’re ahead of us on the list?” he asks in exasperation. (The FBI estimates there are about 400 annual justifiable police homicides. One Washington Post tally found almost that number killed by police in the first five months of this year.)

Before proceeding, Glennon points to a threat in the back of the room: me. “In 35 years, we have not allowed the press to come into a class,” he says. “The reason is because we don’t trust them.” He says he’s letting me observe because many police chiefs are frustrated no one is advocating for them. They’re tired of being portrayed in the media as racists and unaccountable killers and want a more sympathetic depiction. If my article screws them, he tells the class with a smile, “I’ll fly out to Seattle”—where I live—“and kill him.”
 
 
Glennon begins class by asking everyone to remove their hats for the Pledge of Allegiance. Then, to bagpipe music, he shows photos of Illinois cops killed in the line of duty over brief captions describing how they died: assaulted in a bar; assaulted with a vehicle; shot during a robbery; shot during a robbery while off duty; shot in an ambush; shot with his own gun.

Some police chiefs, Glennon says, won’t show their departments the graphic incidents he’s about to screen, fearing officers will become too aggressive or quit. “All around the country, they want us to stop using the word ‘warrior,’ ” he says. “Oh, no, ‘customer service.’ ” The hard truth, he says, is that not everyone in a community is a customer—that is, a civilian who needs help. Police often deal with people who don’t want them there and who sometimes want them dead.

He plays a video of Georgia officer Kyle Dinkheller, who pulled over a man named Andrew Brannan for speeding in 1998. Brannan began dancing, daring Dinkheller to shoot him. Brannan returned to his truck to retrieve a weapon, boasting, “I am a goddamn Vietnam combat veteran.” During an exchange of fire, Brannan put a fatal bullet into Dinkheller’s right eye. Glennon says that before Dinkheller was murdered, he’d called Brannan “sir” 27 times and gave 39 orders. None were complied with. “What’s he thinking about in the middle of a gunfight? That he’s going to get in trouble! He’s more afraid of his bosses than he is of an M1 carbine.”

We watch many more officers maimed, beaten, or killed, often through the monochrome of a dashboard camera. A rifle-toting man in Texas shoots highway patrolman Randall Wade Vetter after a traffic stop, then says, “Oh my goodness, that feels good.” A beefy Texas constable pulls over three suspects who confer in Spanish, then disarm and kill him. In South Carolina, a black man is asked to take his hands out of his pockets. The man pulls a gun, killing white officer Scotty Richardson. After that incident in 2011, Glennon says, some online commentators called Richardson a racist terrorist. “And people say we aren’t supposed to let this affect us,” he says.

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He quotes the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who believed only one man in 100 was a true warrior. Glennon tells the police they should mentally prepare themselves for unexpected attack, watching for telltale signs: a quick exit from a car; clenched fists; “scanning” (when a suspect seems to be creating his own tactical awareness of a scene); or looking away. “I’ve thought about how hard I have to bite somebody in their neck to rip their carotid artery out,” he says. “I think about how far do I have to shove my thumb into his eye socket to gouge his eye out.” Glennon then asks me to join him in the front of the class for some role play.

He pairs me with Jason Jeffries, 28, who’s in his first year on the force in Danville. Glennon hands us dummy pistols and describes a scenario: We’re patrol officers on crowd-control duty outside a Barry Manilow concert. There’s an easygoing vibe—until we spot a man leaning against a building with a gun, casually twirling it around, intentions unknown. People run, terrified.

Glennon plays the man with the gun; we’re to say “bang” when we feel justified in shooting. Jeffries and I point our guns at him. Jeffries orders him to drop the weapon. Glennon starts to put it down, then points it at us and says “bang.” We’re dead. Glennon has us try again. Jeffries says “bang” immediately. The cops laugh.

Glennon asks me to take the lead. I fail, again and again. He runs away, then fires at me when I hesitate to shoot him in the back. He pretends to put the gun to his head, only to turn it on me. The message: Action is faster than reaction. Hesitate, and you’re dead. “Ninety-nine percent of the people we meet, maybe higher, aren’t trying to kill us,” Glennon tells the class. “Treat it with dignity and respect. But you have to be prepared to do what? Kill them if you have to.”

Being drilled to think of everything and everyone as a threat fries my nerves. That evening at my hotel, I press the elevator button and suddenly hear gunfire behind me. It’s the ice machine.
 
 
“War stories are how cops get trained,” says Seth Stoughton, a former patrol officer in Tallahassee, who’s an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law.

There’s no universal model for police training, with almost 650 police academies around the U.S. and more than 12,000 local departments, according to the Department of Justice. In addition, many agencies provide continuing education offered by their own officers or private companies. Costs, such as the roughly $170 per person for Glennon’s course in Urbana, are frequently paid by local departments or state agencies. One constant is the emphasis on danger. Officers are often told death is a single misstep away, Stoughton says.

Glennon’s company is one of several that reinforce the warrior mindset. Others include Winning Mind Training, founded by a former policeman from Calgary, and Killology Research Group, run by a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel. The industry’s courses, books, videos, and websites extend the war footing into places far beyond the nation’s traditional murder capitals. During a Street Survival break, Richard Raney, chief of police in Tolono, Ill.—population, 3,467—tells me he uses Killology combat breathing techniques to calm himself before a call: four deep breaths to get more oxygen to his brain. “I try to stress that complacency kills you,” says Raney, who looks like a mild-mannered corn grower in glasses, ball cap, checked shirt, and jeans.

For all the concern about risks, the rate of officers murdered in the line of duty is dropping, according to FBI statistics. In 1984 the 10-year average was 97 a year; as of 2014, it was 51. With some 63 million face-to-face interactions a year between police and the public, a cop’s chances of being murdered are fractions of a percent. “It’s not at all that law enforcement isn’t dangerous,” Stoughton says. “We are still losing almost one officer a week to murder. But it’s far, far safer than officers are being led to believe.”

President Obama’s post-Ferguson task force on policing recommended “guardian” as an alternative to warrior, saying it would build more trust and legitimacy. A training approach called Blue Courage is gaining favor in some places, prodded in part by grants from the Department of Justice. The curriculum, developed by a retired officer, encourages communication over confrontation. Arizona became the first state to adopt the approach in 2013, followed by Washington state.

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Led by Sue Rahr, a former county sheriff, Washington is emphasizing officers’ roles as protectors. State trainers still teach handcuffing and other physical skills but try to put them into context. Recruits might fail a class if they use force when it isn’t necessary, and they’re no longer asked to snap to attention and salute passing superiors. Instead, they’re expected to initiate a conversation. “When you’re out working in the street, you see the very worst of society,” Rahr says. “It’s very easy to get caught up in running and gunning.” She put up a mural of the U.S. Constitution on a wall that once featured a trophy case with nightsticks, badges, and other gear.

Milwaukee’s Ed Flynn is among the police chiefs who dislike the term warrior. He says it can make cops regard themselves as occupiers. He’s expanded training in crisis intervention, which teaches a less confrontational way of handling mentally ill people. Still, he says, it bothers him when people act as if all the problems in American society—emptied-out mental hospitals, the breakdown of families, poverty—can be addressed with better police training.

“We have to toggle back and forth between being the Peace Corps and the Marine Corps,” Flynn says. Five months into 2015, Milwaukee had 56 murders, almost triple the number at the same time last year. An additional 175 people were shot. Last year the city of 600,000 seized almost as many guns as New York. “That’s what the cops are going into,” Flynn says. “At a certain time of night, the nice people who want them, who dial 911, are [all at home], and the streets are full of those men who have chosen a criminal lifestyle and are heavily armed.”
 
 
On the second morning of Street Survival, Glennon puts on screen a grainy image of himself as a young cop, sobbing. It’s from a local newspaper. He’d just pulled a drowned toddler out of a pond. The boy’s body had popped up like a cork when he’d jostled it with his foot. Years later, while going through a divorce, he dreamed about that moment two or three times a week. “If you can’t save kids, then you’re worth nothing in your mind,” he recalls a counselor telling him.

Glennon tones down the warrior message at times; he says officers have to be guardians, too. He advises them to put their clipboards down, look people in the eye, and listen before taking a report. Glennon plays videos showing cops losing their cool, abusing prisoners, letting stress get the better of them. “Ten seconds of poor judgment can lead to discipline, career derailment, depression, prison, and/or suicide,” he says. “Balance is the hardest part.”

During a break, I’m approached by Erik Bloom, who was Champaign’s 2009 Officer of the Year. “A lot of what you’re seeing in these videos is that traditional, stoic approach,” he says. “I’m not going to ever cuss at somebody. I’m there to counsel them and advise them.” Shawn Johnson, a campus officer from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, also seeks me out. He’s one of three black officers in the class of 40. Johnson says some communities have historic reasons to be distrustful, and police need to bridge the gap with dialogue. He often visits classrooms to teach teenagers about what to expect if they’re stopped. In role play exercises, some kids tell him, “Cops don’t talk like that,” while others ask, “Is that the way we act? No wonder police do what they do,” Johnson says.

In class, Glennon says that nothing bothers a cop more than being called a racist. “Police officers, no matter what your color, save more black lives than anyone else,” he says. The consequences are already plain in Baltimore, he says, where crime is soaring as police hang back in the wake of the April riots over the death of Freddie Gray, who suffered a severe spinal cord injury while in police custody. The Baltimore Sun reported that murders in the city hit the highest level in more than 40 years in May. Arrests dropped 60 percent in West Baltimore, where the rioting started.

As the class proceeds, scrutiny of Corporal Eric Casebolt’s behavior in McKinney intensifies. In a video blanketing cable news, Casebolt wrestles a 15-year-old black teenager in a bikini to the ground, pulls her by the hair, and then aims his pistol at two boys who run up to him. To Stoughton, it’s the perfect metaphor for the excesses of the warrior: an amped-up cop who made the situation worse and endangered everyone’s safety. Glennon sees it as a textbook tactical matter. “There were two guys flanking him,” he tells the officers. Casebolt, from his perspective, couldn’t see one boy’s left hand. (Casebolt later quit after his chief called his actions “indefensible.”)

As the class winds down, Glennon tells the young officers to be prepared to improvise. On one of his first domestic disturbance calls, he says, an older cop hit somebody over the head with a toaster. Glennon asked where he’d learned that. “Nowhere,” the cop replied.

“What’s the only rule in a gunfight?” Glennon says. “Win the gunfight. There are no rules. That’s it, right?”

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