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Police Work Is Evolving, and New Skills Mean Better Prepared Cops

Police pulling over a vehicle.

SANTA ANA -- A decade in the Marines infused Aaron Denning with a variety of skills expected in a good cop.

He learned discipline. He learned how to use a weapon, if necessary. And he worked in a strong chain-of-command hierarchy.

A generation ago, those skills might have been enough to get him hired.

But another skill he picked up in two tours in Afghanistan makes Denning, 28, a particularly attractive candidate in a new era of law enforcement.

His job was to gain trust and collect information from civilians, sometimes in life-or-death situations. It taught him how to listen to -- and sometimes help -- people from backgrounds and cultures very different from his own.

"You have to be able to look at things from another point of view," said the affable but intense Denning, who three months ago landed a job with the Burbank Police Department after graduating from the Orange County Sheriff's Regional Training Academy.

"You can't just be the guy in a car driving around handing out tickets."

Cross-cultural awareness might not be the first thing you expect from a patrol officer, but in 2016 it's increasingly essential.

Police work is changing, responding to everything from emerging technologies and shifting demographics to new public expectations.

The change is happening during a time when every move a cop makes can be captured on video and shown on cable news within hours. Video of police in Fullerton and Santa Ana have generated criminal or civil lawsuits against individual officers in recent years.

And people who hire police say shoddy, unnecessarily violent police work -- which law enforcement leaders insist is less common than media coverage suggests -- is as expensive as it is unacceptable.

So while old-school, control-oriented skills remain important parts of being a cop, intelligence and sensitivity are starting to eclipse toughness.

"People skills are ... required for modern policing," said Huntington Beach police Capt. Russell Reinhart.

"The expectation is that an officer should be able to solve most incidents without having to use force."

Or, as Santa Ana's Deputy Chief Jim Schnabl put it: "We're all getting away from the warrior mentality."

Police are still police, Schnabl said, tasked with catching criminals and, in a perfect world, stopping crime.

Good cops have always had strong people skills. But with officers increasingly serving as first responders to problems involving mental illness, drug addiction and other potentially volatile societal ills, they're expected to patiently apply those skills.

In addition, police need more technical training. A quick scroll through help-wanted listings for law enforcement jobs shows agencies seeking expertise in psychology, social media and economics, among other disciplines.

Increased diversity is changing law enforcement culture as well. Schnabl said Santa Ana Police Department, like many others, pays officers more if they speak languages other than English, including Spanish, Hmong and Samoan.

As the job changes, so do cops.

Here's a look at three people who are either newly hired as officers or hope to soon join the ranks -- a coach, a kid with a challenge and a man comfortable in two cultures.

SWEAT EQUITY

For years, Lauren Robertson's life revolved around soccer.

She played the game growing up in Mission Viejo, and she kept playing when she went to Ohio State University, where she starred as a goalie and earned a degree in psychology.

She played professionally, too, with the Washington Freedom in the Women's Professional Soccer league. Robertson, 27, was working as assistant women's soccer coach at Middle Tennessee State University last year when she left to become a cop.

She joined the Irvine Police Department three months ago. Her long-range goal is to become a field training officer and part of the agency's SWAT unit.

The skills she learned from soccer might help with that.

Schnabl, among others, said high-end athletes can make great officers because of their physical training and experience performing under pressure.

Robertson's soccer background helped her get through the police academy. She said the pressures of training weren't so different from what she experienced as a student-athlete at Ohio State.

"It was very similar in regards to balancing a hard day of physical work followed by staying focused in class and going home to study for an exam the next day."

Playing goalie -- the last line of defense and the focus of every fan and player whenever the opposing team takes a shot -- also helped.

"There is pressure to excel in every situation," Robertson said. "Failure in here (at the academy) means a big mistake out there (on the street)."

Soccer will always be important to her, she said, but law enforcement has been a lifelong desire. "I figured I could do more with my life and have the chance to achieve another dream."

AN O.C. FIRST

Last October, Robert Ram was a pioneer.

At 20, he graduated from a Sheriff's Department academy class, qualifying him for his job as a Correctional Services Assistant in the county jail system.

Ram, who lost a leg to cancer at age 12, became the first amputee to graduate from a Sheriff's Department class.

Today, he helps monitor inmate movements, maintain order, and control entries and exits at jails. The job often is a first step to becoming a sworn deputy.

His father is a retired deputy from the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, and Ram is determined to follow that tradition.

He is, in some ways, a typical candidate to become a sheriff's deputy. Before losing his leg he was an all-star baseball player, and after, at Tesoro High in Rancho Santa Margarita, he played water polo, swam and wrestled.

He's too young to enter the sheriff's academy for training as a full-time, sworn deputy. But he'll be eligible this year and is eager to get started.

Will he get the chance?

Decades ago, police agencies might have unanimously said no, citing public safety or the safety of other officers. But in recent years, officers with missing limbs have worked for departments in San Francisco and Bakersfield, among others. It's unclear if a cop recruit missing a limb has been hired in Orange County.

But there's no rule blocking Ram from getting hired at the Orange County Sheriff's Department.

"He'll face the same challenges as any other recruit," said department spokesman Lt. Mark Stichter. "That includes rigorous physical activity coupled with rigorous classroom training."

Stichter said advances in prosthetics, if not a change in perception, might make it easier for Ram or other amputees to meet the physical demands of the job.

Such medical advances have been driven, in part, by athletes and military veterans, two groups that have been traditional pools for police recruiting.

Ram has another point in his favor. He has volunteered in the community, talking with young patients dealing with amputations at Children's Hospital of Orange County. His message: Don't give up on your dreams.

Santa Ana's Schnabl said that's a huge factor in getting a job as a cop.

"Community service is what it's all about," Schnabl said. "We look for people with a history like that, of helping others."

CULTURAL BRIDGE

This month, Phuong-Huy Nguyen graduated from the Orange County sheriff's academy, becoming the 10th Vietnamese-speaking officer on the Westminster Police Department's 85-member force.

Nguyen, 28, smiled when asked about the experience.

"It was the best time I never want to do again."

Nguyen has a bachelor's degree in criminology, law and society from UC Irvine. One of his goals as an officer is to build trust between Westminster's large Vietnamese American population and local police.

Such trust isn't a given, and it can be important.

In January, two of the three men who escaped from Orange County Jail and spent a week on the run were Vietnamese Americans.

The manhunt to bring them in eventually went statewide, involving pleas by authorities through English-language media. But the dragnet had a strong focus on Little Saigon, with Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens walking neighborhoods and speaking to residents and appearing on Vietnamese-language media.

Sheriff's Capt. Jeff Hallock, then the department's spokesman, said the outreach could have been better if his department had stronger ties to the Vietnamese American community.

"It's something that's important for us to keep building," Hallock said in January.

Nguyen wants to play a role in that.

"Being Vietnamese ... exponentially increases my ability to interact with the community," he said. "It's a big step in getting Vietnamese people on the side of the law enforcement."

Nguyen's background will be valuable in Westminster, which has the highest concentration of Vietnamese Americans in the United States.

Westminster police Cmdr. Cameron Knauerhaze said cultural expertise isn't easy to find -- and it's increasingly valued by his department.

"He has knowledge ... you can't put in a textbook," Knauerhaze said.

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This article was written by Scott Schwebke and Andre Mouchard from Orange County Register and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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