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Inside the Academy: Constitutional Law

Long before recruits at the St. Louis County and Municipal Police Academy ever step foot on the gun range, they spend months in the classroom learning the basics of police work.

On the first day of the academy, recruits begin learning about constitutional law. According to Academy Instructor Eric Austermann, it’s the most important topic recruits learn.

“It’s really the foundation of what a police officer does,” he said.

Law enforcement officers take an oath to uphold the United States Constitution, but a lack of education and an abundance of misinformation can create a divide between police and the people they serve, Austermann said.

The first amendment of the constitution grants every citizen the right to freedom of expression which includes freedom of religion, speech, the press and to peaceably assemble.

“We were talking about the first amendment and citizens’ rights to be able to take out their cellphone and record what we as police are doing,” said Recruit Mary Mills. “That, obviously, has been a point of contention, and a little bit of a stressful thing for police officers having to deal with that with cameras in their face.”

As technology changes over time, police officers are forced to adapt. As a result, the academy training for recruits and the discussions happening in the classroom are changing as well.

Citizens have the right to record an officer’s actions. Recruits are taught they have the right to ask a citizen to step back to give the officer space to do their job. They also discuss ways to cope with and manage these types of stressful encounters.

“Talking about not letting (the presence of a camera) scare us or prevent us from doing our jobs the way that we need to do our jobs, but just remembering that we’re under a magnified glass,” said Mills.

During class, the recruits watch countless videos posted to the internet of police officers engaged in a variety of situations. As a class, they discuss what goes well, what goes wrong, and how the situations could have been handled differently.

“We don’t want to end up on YouTube or be a bad representation of our police department and for police in general,” said Mills.

Occasionally, they find the videos may not tell the full story of an incident.

“People post a video and then comment to that video about what they feel the police officer did or didn’t do,” said Austermann. “A lot of that is based on emotion and not based on fact or law. That lack of education leads to a lot of bad interaction between police officers and the public.”

Over the last few years, events in St. Louis have made international headlines. Images of peaceful and not so peaceful protests, as well as the police response to those actions, have been witnessed and critiqued by many.

Prior to 2014, protests weren’t as common in the St. Louis area. “That was something that you’d see on the news in L.A. or New York,” Austermann said. When large scale protests began to happen in St. Louis, local police had a learning curve.

“The public absolutely has the right to peacefully assemble, and they have a right to say what they want to say. They have a right to carry signs. They have a right to disagree with the government, or the police, or any other group that happens to be there.”

When protests become violent or destructive though, Austermann said it’s the right and duty of the police to intervene. He acknowledges it is often not the original group of protesters who commit those acts.

“A core group of people are there to have their voice be heard, and they want to get their point across. Then we have another group or groups that use that just as a pathway to start trouble. That’s not just locally here, we’ve seen that all over the country.”

The academy instructors are now using the lessons learned across the country and their experiences locally to teach and prepare future officers.

Recruits are studying human behavior and learning how to write reports, how to patrol the streets, how to de-escalate situations through conversation and how to use force when talking fails.

We’ll cover those topics and more as we continue to follow Class 193 through the St. Louis County and Municipal Police Academy.