ST. LOUIS — When Ti’Aja Fairlee told some of her family members she was making history by joining the first-ever police academy of its kind at a historically Black university, some accused her of becoming a snitch and training to learn to kill people.
She understood where they were coming from.
She grew up in East St. Louis, where she said crime is high and faith in the police is low.
“You call the police in East St. Louis, are they going to show up?” she said. “And by the time they do show up, it’s already over with.”
She was 13 years old when Mike Brown was killed and joined Black Lives Matter protests – where calls for more minority police officers were among the demands from anti-police brutality protesters.
She says she still believes Black lives matter, but having gone through a police academy, she has a whole new perspective – one she shared with family members who questioned her career choice.
“I just told them, ‘That is not the goal, I never want to pull my gun out or even have to mace someone, if you know how to talk to people, none of that stuff needs to be used,’” she said.
But she also knows, in rare instances, sometimes it does.
She gave an example of seeing how officers might look like they are going hands on with someone during a domestic call.
“(The officer) might actually just be trying to move them apart, but people may say, ‘He’s been too aggressive,’” she said. “But he’s not trying to be a threat.”
She’s also explained to friends and family members other aspects of police training, such as why police do not train to shoot a person in the leg or arm.
“It’s very difficult to hit a moving target,” she said.
The training she said she loved the most is what she believes will keep her weapon in her holster.
It was called Critical Incident Training (CIT), where, she said, she learned the art of de-escalation and empathizing with people in stressful situations to avoid using force as much as possible.
St. Louis city and county have CIT officers on the forces as well.
“We had scenarios where we had to talk to someone who wants to commit suicide, or was drunk and had a gun,” she said.
Friday night, the 20-year-old will graduate along with eight other recruits from Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri.
National media is expected to cover the ceremony, and the TODAY show has already aired a piece about the program – which hopes to boost the number of minorities in policing.
Fairlee made time to talk to me just before an interview with CNBC.
“All these reporters keep telling me we’re making history, but I feel like I’m just doing what I want to be doing,” she said.
TV shows about detectives solving crimes got her interested in law enforcement.
If ever she went to the library, she went to the True Crime section to look for books about investigations.
She was interested in forensics, but intimidated by all of the science classes required for that profession.
She learned about Lincoln University during a college fair at her alma mater, East St. Louis High School.
She entered the criminal justice program there and interned at the Lincoln University Police Department as part of a work study program. A captain there told her Chief Gary Hill was talking about starting a police academy – the first-ever police academy at a historically Black college or university, or HBCU.
“The captain told the chief, ‘Here’s your first recruit,’” Fairlee recalled.
She admits she was intimidated at first.
Most of the 22 initial recruits who started the program were men.
“They looked like a bunch of football players,” she said. “I was like, ‘They’re going to kill me in all of the fitness tests.’”
But, she stuck with it.
She’s one of only two women who completed the program.
And, she already has a job.
Webster Groves Police Capt. Greg Perks recruited her at a job fair at Lincoln University, after the university invited police departments to participate.
"She's a very bright, vibrant young lady and that's what attracted me to her when she came to our booth," Perks said.
She's going to work with the department as an intern until she turns 21 next January.
If she meets all the department's requirements, she will become one of the department's 47 officers, he said.
"The more diverse your department is, the more equal representation you have for the community in which you serve," Perks said. "Across the nation law enforcement recruitment is down, it's abysmal right now, and more programs like this allowing kids to go through academy while obtaining their degree is a major bonus that puts more qualified applicants into the pool nationwide.
"You can’t just put an ad out say, 'We’re hiring,' and wait for people to walk in your door. That's how it was 24 years ago when I came on, but not anymore."
Fairlee said what attracted her to Webster Groves was how it pursued her.
“They followed up with me afterwards and I was like, ‘If they really want me enough to follow up with me, then that’s where I want to be,’” she said.
Fairlee said she, too, hopes more HBCUs will start police academies.
A spokeswoman for Harris-Stowe University in St. Louis told me it is working with Hill to create a police academy as well.
“I really didn’t know how to get into stuff like this,” she said. “Nobody tells us.
“At first, I had my doubts. And now, I’m very proud of myself.”
And so is her family, she said.