Prepared remarks: Attorney General Phil Weiser Law Enforcement Academy Graduation Speech at Colorado Mountain College (May 5, 2023)
Thank you so much, Academy Director Stu Curry, for inviting me to join you all at this important occasion.
Academy graduates, after 16 weeks of hard work and dedication, you are about to enter what is likely to be one the greatest, but also most rewarding, challenges of your lives—serving your fellow citizens as law enforcement officers. The opportunity for you to make a positive difference in your community is tremendous, and you will be there to support vulnerable persons, protect public safety, and help people on what could be one of the worst days of their lives.
We all know that this is a challenging time for law enforcement. The fact that you are entering this profession at a time when many are leaving makes your decision a critical one. As you take this step forward, you will have the opportunity to be part of an effort to improve our criminal justice system and help shape how the public views law enforcement.
Your graduation from the academy is at the start of Law Enforcement Officers Month. In a week, we will honor Peace Officer’s Memorial Day. Last year, 245 peace officers lost their lives on duty, including two fallen heroes in Colorado. Both Colorado peace officers who sacrificed their lives on duty died while protecting victims of domestic violence. In the case of Arvada Police Officer Dillon Vakoff, he was killed while protecting a woman wounded during a custody dispute. El Paso County Sheriff’s Deputy Andrew Peery was shot and killed attempting to rescue a wounded domestic violence victim who was laying exposed in a front yard. The memory of both Officer Vakoff and Deputy Peery and their sacrifices will not be forgotten and will live on as a blessing.
In reflecting on Law Enforcement Officers Month, and the upcoming Peace Officer’s Memorial Day, we appreciate the courage of those who wear the badge and place themselves in physical risk. We also appreciate the true north of the profession—doing the right thing, the right way, for the right reason. As peace officers, you will often find yourself called upon to protect victims and intervene in dangerous situations. In such situations, it is important to act with emotional awareness, empathy, and compassion for others. For those committed to supporting law enforcement, we have an obligation to you to ensure you have the tools and training you need to serve and protect the public.
As Colorado Attorney General, I have the honor of serving as Chair of the Peace Officer Standards and Training Board, or POST. Together, POST and my office are working to improve law enforcement training by completely redesigning how and what we teach at law enforcement academies. This work is critical because how we help recruit and train future law enforcement officers will shape the future of this noble profession. Today, I would like to share with you the core values, or mindsets, that we at POST are thinking about as the “true north” for the future of the profession.
As you reflect back on your experience, I expect one of the highlights was the opportunity to learn by doing. As we redesign the curriculum, we will focus on creating more opportunities for what is known as experiential learning or reality-based training. The goal of this training is to enable recruits to practice the skills necessary in simulations so they are best prepared for actual situations recruits face when they become peace officers. It’s often said that we learn not when we succeed, but when we fall short; in those times, we have a tremendous opportunity to learn. And experiential learning in the academy affords cadets to fail and learn when actual lives are not on the line.
In redesigning our academy curriculum and always continuing to build on the outstanding program you each just completed, we can help peace officers meet the challenges they will face on the job with the best possible mindsets. To that end, as part of our redesign process, we identified a set of core values, or mindsets, that will be incorporated throughout the entire curriculum because they are foundational to effective policing. By articulating these mindsets and seeking to develop them, POST is working to keep our peace officers safe, enabling them to perform their duties successfully, and building trust with the community members they serve.
A critical mindset is prioritizing respect for life in all encounters. All human life is sacred and it should be our goal that everyone goes home at the end of a situation. But there will be times that you will be placed in a situation where you will have to protect the life of a victim, a fellow peace officer, a community member, a person in crisis, or even a suspect. And this may mean putting the lives and safety of others before your own. That is the greatest and highest form of public service; and for that, you each have my highest gratitude and respect.
Throughout the history of law enforcement, a primary goal remains maintaining public order by reducing, preventing, and managing behaviors associated with conflict. Sometimes, this conflict is a result of previous trauma, or a mental health issue, and cannot be understood as a person just “acting out.” To prepare for such situations, we’re working to further emphasize de-escalation tactics like those found in the training module known as Integrating Communications, Assessment and Tactics. The goal of such tactics is to maximize the likelihood of a peaceful resolution and minimize the likelihood of the use of force, leading to safer outcomes for officers, suspects, and the community.
A cornerstone of the entire criminal justice system is the respect for, and commitment to, the rule of law. By upholding the Constitution and our laws as the foundation of all our work in the criminal justice system, we can ensure we fully protect the rights of all of our community members and fulfill our legal responsibilities as peace officers. Ensuring the rights of all parties increases the public trust in the legitimacy of the criminal justice system.
We must also recognize that the primary goal of policing is to promote safe communities through crime prevention and community policing. Preventing crime means that we keep community members from becoming victims, instead of just responding after they have already been victimized. To prevent crimes effectively, law enforcement officers must earn the public trust and the support of the community. This follows from hard work that includes building relationships with the community and ensuring that force is only used when absolutely necessary.
I cannot emphasize enough how important respect for all is. This requires a commitment to treating all individuals with dignity, fairness, and respect no matter who they are, what they are accused of, any attitude they may have demonstrated, or what they look like or who they love. Respect requires a professional curiosity to better understand those who present and act differently than us and to act with respect even in the heat of the moment. Respect must be given to everyone including toward the person you may have just had to physically restrain and after they are handcuffed and you and the community are safe. Respect for all is one of the core tenets you’ve received through this program. And I encourage each of you to always keep this value in mind as you put on your uniform each day.
You may likely find that the most challenging part of being a peace officer is making quick decisions under pressure. Sometimes these decisions will have to be made in a split second, with limited information, and will be scrutinized for years to come. That is why ethical decision-making and problem-solving is so important. As part of this ethical decision-making process, we should ask ourselves not only can we take an action, but should we take that action? This includes identifying problems, developing effective options, seeing and eliminating unethical options, and selecting from the best ethical alternatives when implementing solutions.
The single best tool to avoid conflict and unnecessary uses of force is to use empathy and emotional intelligence as part of an effective communication strategy. What this means is really listening to another person in a situation and doing your best to communicate in a way the other person can understand. By seeking to understand another person’s point of view, you will be able to better gain voluntary compliance and cooperation, which should always be our goal.
As you all know, and indeed are motivated by, the role of a peace officer above all is to serve their community. This means that officers must develop community awareness and knowledge. Understanding the specific community you serve will be one of the greatest skills to help you serve effectively. This work requires time as well as deliberate, intentional effort—but it will be well worth it. It will help avoid unintentional pitfalls that can damage the relationship between the peace officer and the community, leading to less cooperation or even hostility. Understanding your community better can help build trust and partnerships, thereby enhancing public safety.
As a peace officer, you are going to witness the very best, and the very worst, of people. Mental health professionals estimate that over a 20-year career, the typical peace officer will experience over 700 critical incidents, while the average person over the same period will experience two. That is just one reason why officer wellness is so important. You cannot take care of your community if you aren’t taking care of yourself.
Like an already full cup, adding more trauma to a person already carrying considerable trauma can cause an overflow. When this happens to a peace officer, the impact can be life changing. This trauma affects not only the peace officer, but their families, their fellow officers, and the community members they interact with. Officer wellness, at its core, means investing in a culture that values and creates space for mental health and wellness. This is a lifelong effort and an important value and should include providing support for the well-being of for each of you, as well as your families.
Many of you in the audience are family members of these peace officers—and I can see from here just how proud you are of these graduates. For those of you about to enter the law enforcement career, I’m sure you’re already aware that your choices impact not only you, but them, too. That’s why it’s important to acknowledge that this profession calls on all officers to build the resilience needed for you to have a long and successful career in law enforcement. That starts with greater emotional awareness and a commitment to wellness.
Lastly, as you all learned through this program, peace officers must have situational awareness. This is a commitment to maintaining awareness of one’s immediate environment and its changes, understanding what is happening at a given moment, and anticipating what may happen in the immediate future. Situational awareness doesn’t only mean being aware of your surroundings, but also developing an awareness of how one’s own behavior or psychological response may impact those around you. This awareness can play a pivotal role in whether a situation becomes unnecessarily escalated, or de-escalated, allowing everyone to go home when a situation is resolved.
These mindsets—the values that should shape and inform peace officers’ approach to their work—are just some of the core skills you can take with you from your training and continue to hone during your careers.
* * *
Before I conclude, let me mention a final point—as you all reflect on your future in law enforcement, I suggest you take time to appreciate your family members who are supporting you. This profession’s demands are felt not only by those who serve, but those who are behind them. For that reason, let me thank all the families here today for supporting you and for joining the law enforcement family.
Thank you for stepping forward for our State and for your communities. Congratulations, Graduates!