KNOXVILLE — An Iowa State Patrol captain recently gave Aaron Fuller a warning.
Fuller, a lieutenant with the Knoxville Police Department, was heading to the FBI’s prestigious National Academy program, which packs plenty of police prowess into 10 intense weeks. His trooper friend let him know what to expect.
“You’re gonna learn a lot more about yourself than you will about law enforcement,” he was told.
That guidance was spot-on, Fuller said. Since recently returning from the academy, a training experience for 232 law enforcement officials from across the nation and world, he’s had time to reflect on how the experience strengthened him and the community he serves.
Fuller learned from experts in a curriculum ripped straight from the headlines. His teachers included people involved in the Benghazi embassy attack, the Las Vegas concert shooting and the racial unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. He busted his guts in physical fitness challenges and spilled them in a psychology course.
But what stuck out the most, he said, is what he learned about listening.
It’s about understanding
“Are you listening to respond or are you listening to understand?” Fuller asked. It’s a question he was asked regularly in a class on organizational change.
People can be cautious about change, he observed. That’s been obvious to Fuller in the two weeks since he returned from the FBI training facility in Quantico, Virginia. Many Knoxville residents have been abuzz about fireworks laws and a proposal to decrease the number of lanes on Highway 14. If folks are listening, it’s mostly to respond, he said.
“We just just don’t listen to understand each other anymore,” he said. “We are so adamant about getting our point out there that we’re not trying to understand the bigger picture or what others are trying to say. Listening to understand doesn’t mean you have to like it.
“It’s about understanding what others are going through, what others are trying to say. It’s not all about Aaron Fuller … it’s not all about the city council or the chief of police or the city manager. It’s about Knoxville as a whole, just trying to grow the best city that we can. We’re clearly headed in the right direction.”
Dealing with the givens
Nearly all the academy’s participants were from larger communities, Fuller said, and 25 came from other nations such as Brazil, Canada, Fiji and Kosovo. A classmate from Iraq grew up in neighborhood where car bombings were commonplace.
“We’re so lucky to live in the United States and have a lot of the freedoms and liberties we have here,” he said.
No matter what size the town or where it falls on the map, though, stress is a constant factor for police, Fuller said. A teacher who addressed post-traumatic stress disorder in law enforcement was especially helpful, he said.
“Even in Knoxville, our officers see some horrific, awful things, whether it’s suicide, car accidents or kids who have died in whatever way,” Fuller said. “We’re human, and some stuff bothers us.”
A psychology class challenged Fuller to think back to the early days of his 12-year career, when the eager young officer worked nights.
“You see everybody at their worst,” he said. “You’re almost never running into anybody who is having a good day.”
Fuller worked hard to nab drunk drivers; he didn’t win a lot of popularity points with the public, he said.
“It seemed like they all hated us,” he said. “I never regretted an arrest I made for OWI, but after a while it takes a toll on you. It led to a little bit of depression and mental illness and stuff like that. I’d be lying if I didn’t think about suicide myself at a certain point.”
With support from his wife and colleagues, Fuller got the help he needed.
“Ten years later, it’s not an issue for me, but I understand it,” he said. “Now, if a younger officer or any officer comes to me and I see some signs that I exhibited back then, I can help them out.”
The bigger picture
Fuller said he chose courses he felt would be helpful to KPD. Chief Dan Losada gave him a firm nudge seven years ago to apply to the academy. Only one percent of law enforcement administrators get to go to the academy, Losada said at a recent city council meeting. A lot of those become police chiefs, said the chief, an academy alum.
A chief’s job would suit Fuller just fine, he said, and he’d prefer to work in Knoxville when his boss moves along. For now, there are plenty of newfound skills and perspectives to put to work. It’s anybody’s guess where they’ll take him, but wherever he winds up, Fuller wants the best for Knoxville, he said.
“Not everybody wants the same thing that you want or I want and that’s OK,” he said. “It’s about the bigger picture. We live in a city. We have neighbors. It’s not about individual people.
“It’s about everyone.”