This piece was published in the Pasadena Star News on July 5, 2009.
As part of continuing education for my job, I took a forty-hour class at the Rio Hondo
Police Academy. The other forty-seven students and I were from a variety of
professions: code enforcement, animal control, fire fighters, park rangers. On the first
day, I had a flashback to my civics class in junior high school, more years ago than I
want published in a newspaper. Corny as it sounds, history came alive.
The instructors were retired law enforcement officers and they all reflected on their
twenty-five to thirty years as a peace officer. I had to get used to “peace officer” instead
of “police officer.” Our teachers started their careers in the 1970’s, just after the
turbulent 60’s, and were front-and-center for the implosion of drugs and gangs. One
reminisced that he started out writing his reports on a piece of paper with a #2 pencil.
Technology has made the peace officer’s job much easier.
I got my flashback on the very first day when the instructor started with the U.S.
Constitution, which was ratified by all thirteen states in May of 1790. The instructor
stated that the U.S. Constitution is the longest lasting written constitution in the world.
He described the three branches: judicial, executive and legislative, and how they were
designed to restrain one another. Here I was, almost 230 years later, reminding myself
of how our country was founded and feeling pride that it has stood the test of time.
The very first session of the U.S. Congress proposed ten amendments to the
Constitution to further clarify the rights of individuals, commonly referred to as the Bill of
Rights. We’ve all heard about the various amendments, including the First Amendment
that gives citizens the right to free speech, freedom of religion and freedom of the press
on TV shows like Law and Order.
Going over it from a peace officer’s perspective gave it a new slant. This was
especially true of the Fourth Amendment – freedom from unreasonable search and
seizure. The instructors went into a lot of detail about traffic stops and under what
circumstances an automobile can be searched, a concept the framers could not have
conceived of back in the summer of 1776.
I looked around the room as we considered the founders of this country: all white,
male landowners. The authors of the U.S. Constitution established this document “in
order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility,
provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings
of liberty.” At the time it applied to them, and not to women, African American slaves or
My classmates included African Americans, Hispanics and Asians. About half of us
were female. Of the five instructors, two were African American, one was Hispanic and
the other two were white. Our union, adhering to the principles drawn up by those well-
intentioned, flawed men, hasbecome more perfect. Their collective wisdom and
foresight produced a Constitution that gave people who had little or no freedom a way to
peaceably fight for it.
We spotted the current class of the Rio Hondo Police Academy as we went to and
from our classroom. I noticed that they ran or marched everywhere, in unison, the
leader shouting out commands. They pretty much reflected the diversity of my class and
looked to be in their early twenties. The trainees were in tip-top shape with a look of
earnestness in their faces that could not be missed.
I had a flash-forward as I watched them run by. Thirty years from now, in 2039,
those who choose to become instructors will stand in front of a class and describe their
career trajectory through times that we cannot imagine today. Much older and well
seasoned in law enforcement, they will still begin their class with the U.S. Constitution
and the rights and freedoms that it protects. The only thing we can be sure of is that #2
pencils will not be involved.
Kathleen Vallee Stein