Rick Desjardins is the acting director of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy. He's pictured at the academy campus in Vassalboro. Credit: Erin Rhoda / BDN

Rick Desjardins stepped into his new role as the acting head of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, which trains the state’s police and corrections officers and oversees their licenses, just weeks before the coronavirus pandemic disrupted the facility’s usual operations.

Now, the sustained protests over the police killing of George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis, has forced a broader reckoning over policing in America that promises a more lasting disruption to the law enforcement field. Protesters and critics are not only questioning how police departments can change, as they have called for in the past, but whether law enforcement should play a smaller role in keeping their communities safe.

Desjardins is the former assistant director of the academy and is in the running to permanently replace his predecessor, John Rogers, the longest-serving head of the academy. He spent his career as a cop at the Brunswick Police Department, rising from a patrol officer in the 1980s to his retirement as deputy chief in 2009.

He spoke to the Bangor Daily News in a recent interview about the role of the Vassalboro-based Maine Criminal Justice Academy and the ongoing calls to reimagine public safety.

His answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What kind of training happens at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy?

A: The two [basic training] programs, corrections and law enforcement programs, are diverse in many ways because they are different jobs. The corrections folks have a five-week, non-residential program to learn how to be corrections officers. Their aptitudes are tested academically, they have to demonstrate they can meet that training standards.

The law enforcement piece is arguably more intense, quite frankly, by design. It’s an 18-week basic program, residential, that really does spend more time in its review of cadets and future law enforcement officers’ aptitude to deal with the rigors of that job.

Because in many cases, law enforcement officers are working by themselves, we need them to be able to make decisions in the heat of the moment thoughtfully and using the best application of law and best practices. It’s not easy. It’s why we do a lot of scenario-based training. We emphasize this is in the basic program, and you’ve got to continue when you leave here.

In the last couple of years we’ve been looking at addiction as a topic, and you know, one doesn’t have to look too far from the headlines and figure out what we’re going to be doing in the next little while with regards to use of force and bias — implicit bias — which we do have those courses already in our library.

The Maine Criminal Justice Academy in Vassalboro, Maine. [Erin Rhoda / BDN]

Q: What has been working and what do you see as areas where training could be improved?

A: We rely almost solely on practicers, subject matter experts working in the profession to volunteer their time [to teach cadets]. It really does define what we think is a great model.

When they see someone who’s not just in theory talking about a concept but these people can literally tell a story. I think we’ve got one of the best, prolific drug buyers who works undercover in the state, and comes to class dressed in kind of junky clothes and has his hair down to the middle of his back, and he kind of looks sketchy, if you will. Basically he can walk in and pull out of his pocket a bag of heroin that he bought on the way over, and he’ll talk about how he set that up. So the relevance is amazing.

You’re always evolving every year because the law evolves. You know, the Supreme Court comes up with a new decision, or our techniques change. So we are in a constant state of revision, and revision is an important aspect of what we do. You have to continue to reassess and evaluate whether or not what you’re doing is actually producing what you want, and that’s something that we will constantly look at.

I do caution you though that, you know, we have to be careful not to act precipitously and emotionally on making change because these trainings do have long-term impacts on a variety of things, and sometimes there are unintended consequences if things change too quickly. You know, we really try to be very careful and thoughtful when we make change.

Q: For example, the academy recently added more mental health first aid training to the curriculum to address the change in the types of police calls. Are there any new programs that will become mandatory?

A: So the mechanics of arrest, restraint, control, which is called the “MARC” program, or defensive tactics, is a program that actually just went through a rewrite of a couple modules. And basically, that’s a 57-hour program that really deals with that physical interaction with someone who’s combative. It really focuses on, first of all, how to de-escalate.

The centerpiece of pretty much everything we do is to resolve the interaction with the least risk, if you will. So anything we can do that gets voluntary compliance, we get people to basically do what we need to do without having to use physical force. That’s what our goal is. But at the end of the day, there are times where that just doesn’t work, and the MARC program helps people deal with that interaction — the physical interaction.

Q: What do you think about a federal bill that would ban chokeholds?

A: One size fits all doesn’t necessarily work for most policies. From the academy’s perspective, we don’t teach chokeholders, other than teaching against them. We don’t advocate them, but to say you prohibit them? It’s a bit of a stretch.

We have cadets that are 110 pounds and go to work by themselves — female, male, doesn’t matter. If you’re in a life-or-death fight for your life, you’re alone, it’s 2 a.m., for us to say you can’t use a technique that you’re not trained by use but it’s to save your life, I’m not willing to go there.

But I think it’s pretty clear what we’re saying to agencies who we’re training: You don’t choke people out as a course of doing business. We all watch TV, see MMA, we see that as a technique they use for submissions, that’s fine. But we don’t teach it. We’re not going to.

Q: Former Director Rogers testified before the Legislature last year that he thought paying for a system that would allow Maine police to better track data on racial minorities (and other demographic data) would not be worth the cost, and that he would rather teach police not to engage in racial profiling. Do you think that training is enough to end racism in policing, and can transparency in data help? Could the training be improved?

A: So yes, a big, deep question. It’s something that we use as a mantra in our academy, that we train law enforcement and corrections officers to treat people equally, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity — all the things that, in essence, some legislators had asked us to measure. Quite frankly, we in law enforcement and corrections, it shouldn’t matter what you look like or how much money you make, or what gender they are, we need to treat people equally and fairly.

The reality is, this was a challenge, and John and I had talked about this — how do you, without offending people, ask them, in some ways, very sensitive and private things, so you can collect that data in some cases during a very nonthreatening interaction. If I’m just interacting with someone at a traffic stop, and I’m just giving them a warning, and then all of a sudden I break into, “How much do you make? What do you designate your gender as? What is your ethnicity?” That would be a hard question to ask, and I don’t know if anyone has given us good guidance about how to effectively do that without risking offending people or making assumptions, which is really something that’s bad, I think.

We [also] deal with agencies that are one and two-person agencies that live in a pen-and-paper world. They don’t have the sophistication of a Bangor or Portland when it comes to data tracking and all that stuff that comes with a more modern, developed police agency.

I think Attorney General Frey made an important step to offer that [the abilty to make complaints about racial profiling through] the AG’s office. What I would like to see is a place for people with a legitimate complaint that may feel uncomfortable logging that complaint with the agency for fear of retribution, to give them another way to make that complaint and an outside entity could look into it.

Q: Following the protests in Maine and across the nation over police brutality, we’ve seen people calling to take money away from police departments and re-invest it in other public programs, arguing that it is a smarter way to address public safety. But prior to recent weeks, officials, including police, have discussed how cops have absorbed the duties that have traditionally fallen to social workers, such as working with the homeless population or responding to people in the throes of mental health crises. What are your thoughts on the movement to defund, or in the case of the city of Mineappolis, dismantle police departments and replace them with something else?

A: Crazy. Honestly, seriously, most people, I think on both sides of the aisle, are saying defunding police is not a good idea. I think there are conversations that can happen around how we are [providing resources to], and in some cases, shrinking dollars that go to a lot of different programs, including law enforcement. I’m obviously biased when it comes to policing. I think we do an amazing job at what we do for budgets. The reality is that people feel that there’s a frustration out there, but the solution is not to throw away a system that works the vast majority of the time really well.

Living in a society that’s open and free requires a well-trained and professional law enforcement agency or entity or presence to keep things safe. The reality, though, is I think we all have a responsibility to participate in that process as citizens. The idea that we are not participating in having some dialogue with our professional communities is kind of tragic — that people don’t feel like they have a voice.

We have to police with permission. And the agencies need to take proactive steps to ask for permission. But the reality is, the community also needs to look for ways to interact in a positive way with law enforcement, so that their voice can be heard.

Q: My understanding from protesters and supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement is that they’ve been trying to have these conversations but they feel at a breaking point because they continue to see situations like what happened in Minneapolis or in South Georgia or in Louisville, and it feels that those conversations haven’t fundamentally changed the fact that black people in the United States are killed more often by police than their white counterparts. So what should be their next step?

A: That is the next step. You have to act locally. It has to be a conversation. It can’t be yelling or “my way” — it has to be an honest and open dialogue and discussion. But the reality is, until they’ve exhausted the local options, that’s where it needs to continue.

The agencies I work with are looking for opportunities and trying to figure out ways that they can bridge that conversation, that community gap so that there is this, you know, this attempt to try to get to some common ground.

Q: One thing I’ve noticed that police have in common with some of the people calling to defund them is the acknowledgement that law enforcement has taken on duties that fall outside of their traditional responsibilities, which might be better suited to other types of public service workers. Is there some common ground to be had there?

A: I think the reality is we need to be part of the solution.

I wouldn’t want to have officers being told, “We’re not going to train you up on this stuff [like mental health and addiction] because you’re not capable of at least helping create solutions, in some cases. Stay back in your cars, write tickets, go handle, you know, whatever, but don’t don’t get involved in this other stuff.” I think that’s wrong.

I think there’s a benefit to having officers rounded in their training and have the ability to recognize a lot of these different aspects of what they’re going to be dealing with on their streets [beyond the crime itself].