What The Heck Now, Recruit!?

Critical thinking is a critical skill for cops. How do we awaken recruits to visualize what they’re going to do when things don’t go as planned? Val Van Brocklin shares a “teachable moment.”

What’s an Awakening?

If you’re a recruit you probably don’t remember the 1990 movie Awakenings starring Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro. For some of us, twenty one years ago isn’t a life time.

The movie was loosely based on the true story of a British neurologist who discovered that the then new drug, L-Dopa, could “awaken” patients left catatonic by an outbreak of encephalitis lethargica. Williams played the doctor and DeNiro portrayed one of the patients, Leonard Lowe, who is awakened after decades of existing nearly comatose and must deal with a new life in a new world and time.

Tragically, the awakening doesn’t last and Leonard and the other patients gradually begin a torturous return to their catatonic state – no adjustment of the drug can save them.

Have you ever had days like that at the Academy, as an FTO, or even a supervisor? A recruit or officer seems catatonic in response to a new scenario or call and then you guide them to an awakening, only to be left wondering if their enlightened state will last?

I have. I’d like to share one. Let’s approach it like a movie. 

The scene and characters.

I’m an adjunct instructor at the Alaska DPS Academy. Accessible only by water or air, the Academy is on an island in Sitka. Recruits live there in dormitory housing. Family and friends can’t visit until the end of week seven. The recruits’ day begins at 0500 and they can be seen at 2100 cleaning the building so it’s inspection ready. It’s an intensive training environment.

I began instructing at the Academy around 1987 -- before many of the recruits who now attend were born. I was a prosecutor back then and, along with other Alaskan prosecutors, would instruct on the legal topics as my trial schedule allowed. When I changed careers to train full time, the Academy contracted with me to teach during every DPS Academy. I’ve been doing that for over a decade now.

I bunk in the VIP quarters in the same building that houses the recruits so I’m familiar with Academy life outside the classroom. The place is like a home-away-from-home to me. Over the years, “my kids” at the Academy have gone on to become Commanders, Deputy Commanders, and Corporals.

I am sometimes referred to as the “Queen of Everything” by Academy staff and recruits. I may have initially encouraged this but it’s taken on a life of its own – one I cultivate. A recent Academy class got a mug for me with a picture of an ornate crown above the phrase “Queen of Everything,” with a strand of faux pearls circling the base. That was good sucking up to the Queen.

Last week I flew to the Academy on a Sunday to train for the week. A TAC officer whom I’d instructed as a recruit picked me up at the airport and carried my bags into the VIP quarters. After I’d settled in, I grabbed keys to a vehicle that’s put at my disposal to go grocery shopping.  I walked through the common area of the building on my way out, passing by the TAC officer and a recruit.


I nod, smile and say, “Hello.” The recruit replies,

“Good afternoon, Ma’am. May I please see some identification?”

My jaw drops. “WHAT?! Do you know who I am?!”

“No ma’am. That’s why I need to see some ID.”


As I imagine the Corporals doing inchworms across the tarmac the next day for allowing a situation to arise in which the recruits don’t know who I am, the TAC Officer’s eyes go wide as he waits for lightning to strike the recruit.

“That may be, Ma’am, but I still need to see your ID.”

With the telltale vein at my temple throbbing, I produce my Alaska driver’s license. The recruit glances at it and thanks me. I walk away fuming. I feel like the General in full uniform who’s been asked by private security to show his ID at the entrance to his own base.

The teachable moment.

Then, it hits me – this is a “teachable moment.” I walk back to the recruit.

“What’s your name?” I ask imperiously.

“Recruit Hayes, ma’am.”

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