After life on the street, former cop helps humanize the homeless for D.C. recruits

Advocates say the training helps police recruits see the homeless as people just like themselves—and it’s having an impact.

Former law enforcement officer Alan Banks spent six years homeless in D.C. Now he helps train Metropolitan Police Department officers on how to interact with the District’s homeless residents. (Joshua Eaton/ThinkProgress)
Former law enforcement officer Alan Banks spent six years homeless in D.C. Now he helps train Metropolitan Police Department officers on how to interact with the District’s homeless residents. (Joshua Eaton/ThinkProgress)

WASHINGTON, D.C.—For the past five years, nearly every recruit to pass through the Metropolitan Police Department’s training academy has heard Alan Banks talk about the six years he spent homeless as part of their training on how to interact with the District’s homeless residents.

The trainings are designed to show officers that the homeless are people just like them, Banks told ThinkProgress. But Banks also shares a special connection with the recruits: Before he was homeless, he spent decades in federal law enforcement.

“I had a very good job, a very good income, a nice home, a lot of material possessions,” Banks said. “But all my life I struggled with mental illness, major depression. And it’s a disease that eventually took everything I had — my marriage, my home, and eventually my job, and I wound up homeless.”

The trainings are led by Ann Marie Staudenmaier, a staff attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. She had the idea in the late 1990s, hearing about a similar program in San Francisco. When Staudenmaier approached the training academy about doing “Homelessness 101” sessions with recruits, she says, they agreed to give it a try.

At the time, Banks was working as a supervisor and trainer with the Smithsonian Institution’s uniformed police force, called the Office of Protective Services. He had what many people dream of: A good-paying job, a wife, two children, a home on the Chesapeake Bay, and even a nice boat to take out on weekends.

But Banks says the loss of his father in 1996 ignited a slow burn that would eventually consume everything.

He spent the next decade struggling with depression. While his wife urged him to open up and talk about his problems, he says, he became skilled at hiding his illness from colleagues.

“‘[I]f I had gone to my boss at the time and said, ‘I’ve got a problem up here, and I need help,’ I would have lost my clearance on the spot,” Banks said, pointing to his temple. “You know, ‘Hand in your weapon, go sit over there until we figure out what to do with you.’ So I got really good at hiding it.”

By the time Banks’ job and marriage fell apart in March 2004, he was almost completely non-communicative. He spent the next six years living on the street and in shelters—cut off from his children, who were in college, and the rest of his family.

“[W]hile you’re out there in the storm,” he explained, “you’re in like survival mode.”

Banks was able to get mental health care and begin to pull slowly out of his depression. In 2006, he decided to join the National Coalition for the Homeless’s Speakers’ Bureau, which gives presentations on homelessness to audiences at churches, schools, and other groups.

That’s where Staudenmaier and Banks connected. She said adding the voice of someone who has been on the street, especially someone with a law enforcement background, has made a huge difference in recruits’ interest and enthusiasm. And it fits with the larger mission of the trainings: to help recruits realize that people experiencing homelessness are just like them.

“When you’re just talking to people about facts and trends and resources, they sort of pay attention. But they weren’t that into it, especially 20 years ago,” Staudenmaier said. “But when they hear their stories, told in this really compelling way, that just totally got their attention. You know, everybody is paying attention.”

On two occasions, Banks said, D.C. police woke him up a little too roughly while he was living on the street. But overall, his experience with law enforcement was positive—in part because he knew how to avoid drawing their attention. And he doesn’t blame officers for what he says are the pressures they get from higher up.

Still, both Staudenmaier and Banks said that the homelessness trainings and a larger shift in policing over the past 20 years have led to fewer and fewer complaints about how Metropolitan Police Department officers treat D.C.’s homeless residents.

Banks sees his old self in some of the officers he trains, he said — tough, closed off, distant.

That’s not necessarily true for other police departments in the D.C. area, Staudenmaier said. While she has held occasional trainings for police in those departments, she said, only Metropolitan Police have made it a regular part of their training for all recruits—something Staudenmaier pointed to as a critical factor.

“It’s actually important to them now that they get this training,” she said. “So that’s really gratifying.”

Banks came out of homelessness in 2010. After re-connecting with an uncle through the Veteran’s Administration, where Banks was in a program, he was able to get back in touch with his family. Eventually, Banks said, he got them all together and explained what happened. It was especially tough for his brother to understand why he went to the streets instead of reaching out to family for help—a choice Banks said his illness made for him.

Thankfully, Banks said, his worst fears about how his disappearance might have hit his children, who are now in their 30s, proved unfounded.

“One of the things that worried me the most for the whole time that I was homeless was that my storm would have a negative effect on their lives,” he said. “And I’m truly blessed that it didn’t.”

Now Banks is rebuilding those relationships. He works as a community engagement associate at Friendship Place, a D.C. homelessness nonprofit, and he’s still active with Staudenmaier’s trainings for D.C. police.

Banks sees his old self in some of the officers he trains, he said—tough, closed off, distant. He hopes that sharing his story can help them open up, especially when the people they interact with happen not to have a home.

“Our main goal is to get the future officers to understand that they’re dealing with people on the streets, and not ‘its ,’” he said, “to get them to understand that, unfortunately, they’re on the front line when it comes to dealing with people who are experiencing homelessness.”

ThinkProgress is one of seven D.C.-based newsrooms dedicating a portion of our newsgathering to a June 29 collaborative news blitz aimed at uncovering barriers and solutions to ending homelessness. See all participants’ work at DCHomelessCrisis.Press