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How are our local police officers trained?

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This is the fourth article in a new series examining police policy, practice and relationship to the community.

Articles in this series

Beginning in April, villagers may see an Antioch College student or a local resident taking a walk around town beside a Yellow Springs police officer. But look closely. The man or woman in blue is the one being escorted.

Interim Chief Brian Carlson recently introduced a plan to pair YSPD officers with local residents interested in giving police a tour of the campus or village, offering bits of history and making introductions.

“They’ll introduce [the officers] to their peeps,” Carlson said in a recent interview.

A springtime stroll may not sound like police training, but Carlson says it is.

“Officers have to engage. Not as an occupying force, but as part of the community,” he said.

Pairing officers and citizens is just one way in which Carlson, appointed as interim chief on Jan. 23, aims to increase positive interactions between villagers and police. And it’s a form of training, albeit casual and unconventional, that he believes officers who want to serve effectively in Yellow Springs must have.

“We’re a small community. We should know our officers and our officers should know us.”

In this fourth article in our series, “People and Police,” the News is examining how local officers are trained, with a particular focus on how training supports, or doesn’t support, villagers’ stated preference for community policing — policing that engages with, and takes its cues from, the local community.

Beginning with the basics

Like their counterparts across Ohio, all Yellow Springs police officers are graduates of one of the state’s 60 peace officer basic training academies. Programs in our area include the Greene County Career Center, Sinclair Community College and Clark State Community College. Trainees, called cadets, typically attend the academy six hours a day for about five months. Tuition and fees cost about $4,500. 

Academy training is standardized across Ohio. Per Ohio law, the Ohio Peace Officers Training Academy, or OPOTA, part of the state attorney general’s office, sets the curriculum and trains the instructors, though content is delivered at the local level though the various academies.

“The state of Ohio controls all training,” explained Ellis “Pete” Willis, commander of the Sinclair Community College academy. “The academy at Sinclair is the same as the academy at Greene County Career Center. The core is developed and crafted by OPOTA.”

“We need to be more proactive in rebooting officers coming from other jurisdictions. We have a different style of policing. … We need to reframe training for new hires to fit our style.”
— Brian Carlson, Interim Police Chief

The state currently requires 695 hours of training across 13 units: administration, legal, human relations, firearms, driving, subject control techniques, first aid/CPR, patrol, civil disorders, traffic, investigation, physical conditioning and homeland security. All certified academies must offer at least that much training; some offer more. The most training hours are given to the traffic and legal units, with 125 and 98 hours respectively. Human relations, at 61 hours, includes crisis intervention, domestic violence and human trafficking, among other topics. Subject control techniques, meaning the use of verbal and physical force, are the focus of 78 hours. A 16-hour community relations and procedural justice course was added to the curriculum last year, at the recommendation of a special task force appointed by the attorney general to improve police training.

The total number of basic training hours has increased substantially over time. According to Michael Hild, commander at the Greene County Career Center, or GCCC, academy, required training hours have risen almost threefold since his own academy certification in 1980. The GCCC academy currently requires 750 hours. Extra hours include training on the use of tasers and pepper spray and single-officer responses to active shooters, topics that Hild said make academy graduates more employable.

Basic training helps cadets acquire the core skills of a law enforcement officer, but it also sets the tone for their understanding of the profession. For example, Yellow Springs Sgt. Josh Knapp, who graduated from the Ohio State Highway Patrol Academy in 2003, recalled an ethic of police professionalism that discouraged officers from revealing anything personal about themselves to citizens, even their first names.

“Our first name was ‘Officer,’” he said.

As he’s interacted with and trained younger officers, Knapp has noticed a shift in outlook — “more of the public servant and less of the public authority.” 

According to Commander Willis, academy training reflects a greater community focus than in the past, specifically by equipping cadets with the skills to interact with diverse groups. “The state has become very proactive regarding training to address crisis situations, interactions with diverse populations and mental health issues,” he wrote in an email.

The Dayton-based Sinclair academy now brings in speakers from the Latino and Muslim communities, as well as individuals who have had difficult experiences with the police in order to deepen cadets’ understanding of the communities they will serve, according to Willis.

“A lot of our work is helping cadets learn how to interact with someone having the worst day of their life,” he explained.

Commander Hild emphasized the balance between serving the community and keeping officers safe. “We want them to serve the community effectively, and we want them to go home at the end of their shift,” he said.  

Previously, Yellow Springs hired some officers prior to basic training and paid their way through the academy, according to Interim Chief Carlson. The Village hasn’t done that for several years, however, which Carlson speculated was related to officer turnover. “We were putting people through, then they were leaving,” he said. 

Several local groups have suggested a revival of a version of that practice, with the community sending a potential officer from Yellow Springs to the police academy in exchange for a set term of service here. That’s one recommendation being considered by the Justice System Task Force, a citizen group appointed by Village Council to examine local policing issues, according to a draft document from that group.

Orienting officers to local ways

Yellow Springs Sgt. Naomi Watson, who has been on the local force since 2007, graduated from the police academy in 2005. She estimated recently that she’s used “about 10 percent” of what she learned in basic training in her day-to-day work. The key for any police officer, she said, is what happens after the academy — the training on the job.

De-escalation can begin the moment an officer shows up on the scene. “How an officer gets out of the car and approaches someone — that sets the stage for what happens next.”
—Bill Parsons, police trainer

That training begins with field training. When Sgt. Josh Knapp was hired by Yellow Springs in 2013, he already had nine years of experience as a patrol officer in the Fairborn police department under his belt. His orientation to Yellow Springs was brief.

“I had a two-day training period, then I was out on the street,” he recalled.

But such brevity is not typical, he said. Knapp helped restructure, and now supervises, the Yellow Springs department’s field training program, a nine-to-12-week program for newly hired officers. The program pairs new hires with certified field training officers, or FTOs, on the local force in order to orient them to the village and its policing style.

There are currently five FTOs in the department: RJ Hawley, Jeff Beam, Dave Meister, Mark Charles and Knapp. Meister and Charles were just recently certified. In Yellow Springs, FTOs must have at least two years of policing experience and be certified by the state’s 40-hour field training course through OPOTA. 

Newly hired officers typically rotate through three FTOs, spending about three to four weeks with each after an initial shadowing period of one or two weeks with their primary FTO, according to Knapp. Different officers will inevitably have different policing styles, he said. But a key part of the FTO’s job is to convey community expectations regarding local police.

“We can’t tell [newly hired officers] when to write a ticket and when not to, but we can correct them if they’re being a jerk about it,” he said.

A major expectation villagers have is that they will come to know their local officers, Knapp said. When he takes new officers downtown for the first time, he tells them to be prepared for questions from residents about their first name, where they live and where they went to high school. 

“[Citizens] want to know you as a person, not just as the robot cop,” he said. 

Field training is a priority for Justice System Task Force member Pat Dewees, who is looking into local police training. She views the termination of Officer John Whittemore last summer and the recent departure of Officer Allison Saurber as indicators that training needs to be improved. Both officers were on the job just a few months, and left after controversial use-of-force incidents.

Of particular concern to Dewees is how to effectively train — or retrain — officers like Whittemore who come from other jurisdictions and may not be used to Yellow Springs’ more progressive, community-oriented policing approach.

“When you bring in people … who are more focused on compliance training that is more paramilitary, how do you shift those attitudes?” she asked.

Interim Chief Carlson said that making this shift is one of his goals for the local department.

“We need to be more proactive in rebooting officers coming from other jurisdictions. We have a different style of policing. … We need to reframe training for new hires to fit our style,” he said.

Reframing training

Police training in Ohio is changing, according to Attorney General Mike DeWine in a recent interview with the News. The state has implemented many recommendations from his 2015 special task force on training, including increasing training hours; adding new training topics such as community diversity, implicit bias and mental health; and emphasizing scenario-based training that gives officers experience in making complex decisions through role playing, video simulation and other means.

These and other changes were prompted by concern over police shootings in Ohio and elsewhere during 2014, according to DeWine.

“We’re doing a better job now thanks to the citizen group’s recommendations,” he said.

In addition to expanding basic training hours from 653 in 2015 to the current 695, the state now requires 20 hours of annual continuing professional training, or CPT, for police, up from 11 last year and just four in previous years. In order for an agency to receive reimbursement for CPT, its officers must take courses in mandated areas, which this year include trauma-informed policing, practical application of force, community and officer wellness and legal issues.

Dewees of the Justice System Task Force welcomes the increase in training hours. “Twenty hours is a lot. Our officers are well-trained and serious about their work,” she said.

But she questions whether CPT courses, many of which are delivered to individual officers as webcasts, can actually change behavior. 

“Training needs to be about modifying behaviors or introducing new behaviors,” she said.

And while the state-developed content generally seems solid, any training designed to meet the needs of jurisdictions across Ohio is unlikely to match the progressive policing vision of Yellow Springs, in her view. “I think it’s less likely to fit our village,” she said.

So she’s pleased that the local department under Carlson is seeking out other forms of training, as well as retooling some of its in-house training.

For example, following the recommendations from various community groups, all officers in the local department will soon have 40 hours of crisis intervention training, or CIT, a nationally recognized program to help police respond appropriately to crisis situations involving individuals with mental health issues. This kind of training “helps us officers be more sensitive to individual needs” and promotes de-escalation in challenging situations, according to Sgt. Watson, who hasn’t yet received the full training, but has taken other courses on mental health topics.

Another new training includes three six-hour sessions with police trainer Bill Parsons, a former Dayton police officer and previous head of the Sinclair academy. Parsons, contacted by phone last week, said he will be focusing on communication and de-escalation — “using language to reduce violence.” De-escalation can begin the moment an officer shows up on the scene, he said. “How an officer gets out of the car and approaches someone — that sets the stage for what happens next,” he said.

“We talk about how to go up the use-of-force spectrum,” said Carlson, who attended Sinclair academy in 2009 under Parsons. “Bill talks about how to bring us back down.”

Carlson plans to modify in-house training along similar lines, to refocus on de-escalation and “softer” communication styles. The department had two in-house trainings last year, which involved tactical topics such as use of force and taser and baton use. This year, Carlson would like to have more tranings, reorienting content to “the simple thing of how you talk to people,” he said.

For example, rather than approach someone gruffly at a traffic stop, officers will learn to shift their style to ask, “Are you okay?”

These techniques can be used in many situations, he said, provided officers stay calm and slow down the pace of interactions.

“Rather than practice ‘command presence,’ we’re going to command respect,” he said.

‘Whose badge?’

The Justice System Task Force will be presenting the first two of its training recommendations to Village Council this month, according to Dewees. The first recommendation, CIT training for all officers, is already being implemented. The second recommendation is to train all officers in recognizing implicit bias, the unconscious bias around factors like race, age, gender and nationality that shape people’s attitudes and behavior. Every community group looking at policing issues in the village has suggested some form of implicit bias training, with a variety of recommended programs, Dewees said.

Such training can help bridge the gap between police and the community, she believes.

“We have a gap, but we don’t have a huge gap between the values of Yellow Springs and behavior of the police department,” she said.

In the view of Parsons, the police trainer, “all communities are different, and officers have to come to understand the expectations of their particular community.” Officers are servants of the community, not the other way around, he said. When he trains recruits, he drives that point home by passing his badge around and asking them “whose badge” it is. Recruits typically reply that it’s his badge, or the police department’s badge, until another answer dawns.

“I tell them, the badge belongs to the community,” Parsons said.

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