FORT PIERCE, Fla. – We see it nationwide. We see it here.
Police confrontations with members of the community. Sometimes those confrontations turn deadly.
But this week, police in Fort Pierce are taking action to hopefully prevent any future incidents. The Fort Pierce Police Department is hosting state-of-the-art de-escalation training to prevent situations that lead to officer-involved shootings.
Last year, a grand jury recommended changes be made in the department following the community outcry from the officer-involved shooting death of Demarcus Semner. Semner was killed nearly one year ago this week, on April 23, 2016.
“There’s so many different cultures that are clashing but one thing is true: Everybody wants to be treated with dignity by showing respect. But we wanted to provide a framework on exactly how to do that,” said Dave Young, co-founder and trainer for Vistelar.
Vistelar, a Wisconsin-based company, travels to only a handful of cities across the country teaching officers how to defuse tense situations, in hopes of reducing the need to use force. The company also provides training for hospitals, companies and any other profession where communication tactics are important.
This week’s training at the Fort Pierce police station involves four days of intense and focused workshops. Five officers from the department are training in the classes, along with other officers from as far away as Maryland and Illinois. That’s how on-demand this training is.
“The body posture and precision word choice when you meet somebody,” said Young during the session on Thursday. “That person’s in crisis, we want to bring them back to recovery.”
In class, officers role-played different scenarios, with guidance on what to do. From easy-going citizens needing directions to irate and screaming confrontations, several situations were practiced.
“What is it that you need, are you okay? Is everything alright?” said practiced one officer with another.
During the class on Thursday, Young demonstrated the “emergency time our scenario”, in which he portrayed an angry citizen who waited for police to arrive at the scene.
“Hey, you know I’ve been waiting here 10 or 15 minutes for somebody to get here!” he yelled at the person portraying the officer. “Brother, my name is Mike,” said the officer calmly, keeping his hands raised in a non-threatening manner.
Young says it’s important to keep officers checked in to the emotions of others.
“‘She said this, so I’m feeling ever angrier’. And they get farther and farther and farther away from the problem by creating all these other obstacles and barriers,” he said of the interaction that happens sometimes between the officer and the resident. “Conflict is based off of miscommunication. Which is based off of misunderstandings. And how do we misunderstand? We fail to communicate.”
A big part of the class covers non-threatening hand techniques. Young stressed the importance of body language and the role it plays in certain responses from individuals.
“Having my hands in these positions,” he said, keeping his hands high and close to his upper-torso, “allows me to defend myself if the situation escalates.”
Fort Pierce officer Don Christman is the lead trainer at the department. He requested Vistelar to do a training session at the department.
“I want the community to know that the Fort Pierce Police Department takes this very seriously. We take our social contract with the community our commitment to the community very seriously,” he said. “Our job is to protect the community and go home at night and see our families as well,” he said.
He says with tensions still strong between law enforcement and the community — police need to evolve.
“Society changes. Technology changes. People change. And we as law enforcement had to change,” he said. “We have to evolve with society and we have to become better.”
Fort Pierce officers will take these techniques and train other departments across the area.
“We work together and help each other out,” added Christman.
The company has brought this exact type of training to departments as big as Los Angeles and New York City.