By Dan Campana
Prompted by the public’s heated commentary over law enforcement’s use of deadly force, the idea of how police perform their jobs and how they are instructed to do so has become the focus of greater public interest than ever before. In response, mandates have been enacted that impact police accountability and transparency, which among other factors, will continue to reinforce and even reshape the emphasis departments have always placed on training. These factors also represent focal points for the importance of adaptability to today’s law enforcement landscape, and bring into discussion the top training priorities for 2016.
“We have to look at the training in order to interpret the perception the public has about the police,” analyzed Michael Casey, director of the Suburban Law Enforcement Academy (SLEA) at the College of DuPage. “The mistakes of a few (officers) are put under the microscope and it taints the whole profession.”
At times, this microscopic focus goes all the way down to the fundamentals of what police officers are learning, which is why training organizations are watching closely to see where the issues arise from in police work. From Casey’s perspective, it’s about creating diversified training opportunities, which can serve new officers and veteran cops alike, especially in the realms of procedural justice and de-escalation tactics.
The forecast for police training in 2016 includes an focus on those topics – as well as body cameras and crisis intervention – as the public keeps a keen eye on how cops serve and protect. Meanwhile, North East Multi-Regional Training (NEMRT) – one of the area’s largest training organizations – enters the New Year unwavering in its mission while rebounding from the ongoing state budget crisis that caused all but the “most critical” courses to be cut late last year.
Focus On: Hot topics (Crisis intervention and body cameras)
NEMRT Director Philip Brankin said it’s “always exciting” to be on the front end of offering training which will be in high demand. Body cameras and crisis intervention are among those areas of focus.
Lake County and the city of Elgin were the two suburban Chicago agencies to receive federal grants to begin implementation of the body-worn camera pilot program last year. A handful of Elgin officers have done field-testing of the cameras within recent months.
Elgin held a number of community meetings to discuss the program during the fall. Lake County Undersheriff Raymond Rose looks forward to upcoming town hall meetings where the cameras will be discussed, but will also serve as a larger opportunity for community engagement about the new equipment and other police issues.
Rose sees body cameras as the “poster child” for what’s wrong with legislation that comes through without a funding mechanism. The county’s fiscal year 2016 budget aims to “leverage” the $73,000 in grant money to purchase cameras for deputies and other sworn members of the department.
As state officials continue to work out the details of body camera policy and procedure, NEMRT has its first course – Implementing and Managing a Body-Worn Camera System – scheduled for April 19, according to Brankin.
Rose said Lake County’s $1.1 million training budget speaks to the Sheriff’s office’s emphasis on being ahead of the curve on what’s facing officers. He also mentions Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) as a key area of focus in 2016.
“This training for us is very critical,” Rose emphasized.
Instructing officers on how to recognize the difference between someone suffering from a mental health issue and a person simply committing a criminal act is a focal point of this training, as is determining ways to intervene short of a physical response if one is not necessarily required.
“We need to move it to the forefront and look at the issues facing society,” Rose said.
Lake County is following the Memphis Model for CIT training – an innovative police-based first responder program of pre-arrest jail diversion for those in a mental illness crisis – and is working with the College of Lake County to certify instructors who will bring the topic to law enforcement officers throughout the county, according to Rose.
CIT is also a focus in Kane County.
“Let’s face it, people do not normally call 9-1-1 just to say hello,” prompted Kane County Lieutenant Pat Gengler. “There is almost always some sort of crisis we are being placed into. If we can better address the underlying issues, hopefully we can have a better outcome of some situations we find ourselves in. The sheriff has placed particular emphasis on this type of training over the last year and we will continue to place a lot of focus on it.”
Focus On: State budget woes (How NEMRT is bouncing back)
The state’s budget impasse meant a lot of bending, but no breaking, at one of Illinois’ biggest training organizations.
Still, after NEMRT went nearly six months without a key portion of its state funding, Brankin felt compelled to apologize to the agency’s 321 members.
“We disappointed you, I’m fully aware of that,” Brankin said of his message. “It wasn’t my fault, but I still disappointed you. I didn’t deliver what I wanted to deliver.”
Until a new bill emerged in December that formally restored a portion of NEMRT’s state funding, the organization had trimmed 83 class offerings in September and October and was preparing to layoff staff in mid-January. Heading into February, NEMRT appears to have weathered the storm and re-upped on its mission to bring top-quality courses and value to departments.
“NEMRT remains committed. We’ll never change in our commitment,” Brankin promised. “Our mission is to train coppers. Our focus is on serving their needs and by serving them we serve their communities.”
Being steadfast in that goal was tested in light of Springfield’s inability to approve a budget, which leaves Illinois as one of two states – Pennsylvania is the other – without a formal spending plan.
NEMRT operates under what Brankin called a three-legged funding system, with 40 percent of its money coming from the state, and the remainder generated by member dues and tuition. Illinois has been without a budget since July, which meant no money had been officially appropriated for spending. That impacted everything, including state employee paychecks, until a Downstate judge’s subsequent ruling cleared the way for workers to get paid. That decision is what Brankin cited for the prolonged stalemate – he said a budget agreement would be more likely to emerge sooner if state workers weren’t getting paid.
Seven months later, no resolution has been reached as NEMRT’s leadership had contemplated.
“My board of directors – and they are 16 chiefs, sheriffs, mayors and managers from throughout the metropolitan area – started looking at this at the end of July,” Brankin explained. “Everybody would have bet the mortgage this would be resolved by August or September, (but) they said this is a problem. This could go on for a long time.”
In October, the board asked Brankin to come up with a plan to navigate things should the budget situation remain unresolved. NEMRT, to remain solid in its commitment to the police officers it serves, continued to offer the “most critical” training classes – such as basic vehicle crash investigation or those used to certify field training officers – even as it had to cut what amounted to about one-quarter of its courses late last year.
The domino effect followed as tuition revenue dropped. Worse, in Brankin’s estimation, was the trouble departments faced as new police mandates went into effect on Jan. 1 without NEMRT fully available to offer the training.
“It’s just an incredible responsibility for police departments and police officers to receive additional training to meet their legislative mandates. And there was no avenue to provide that training,” Brankin related.
The bill passed in December and cleared up about $12 million in funds for ILETSB, 9-1-1 centers and the state lottery. The amount is about 80 percent of ILETSB’s normal budget, which means NEMRT and other training units across the state are still not “whole,” according to Brankin.
“I don’t guarantee that we won’t have this whole thing repeat itself (this) year,” he added.
While that remains to be seen, NEMRT is pressing ahead with its courses for 2016 and the expectation of being at 80-85 percent of its productivity for the year.
Focus On: Being focused on (Heightened scrutiny reinforcing training importance)
The importance of training in 2016 also falls within the context of an elevated level of scrutiny on police officers and how they do their jobs. Brankin said the need for high-quality training is at an “all-time high” because of the microscope being placed on law enforcement.
To that end, Brankin reiterates that NEMRT is in business to serve the departments and their respective communities. He thinks continued commitment by members – NEMRT hasn’t had anyone drop membership because of the budget issue – shows the organization, and its three decades of service, has established itself in a meaningful role.
“If you’re the chief of police, you go where you can get the best training for your officers – that’s how it should be,” Brankin said. “You are responsible to your citizens for how well your officers are trained. You have to be able to look at the mayor and your citizens and say I made the best decision I could.”
Gengler doesn’t see a bigger push toward training necessarily; just a greater amount of attention being paid to how it is reflected in officers’ actions.
“I am not sure there has been a big change in emphasis on training; just more of an emphasis that we are under more scrutiny than ever before,” he acknowledged. “This is not always a bad thing. This renewed scrutiny is helping us make sure we are doing a good job every time and being professional when everyone else is in chaos. This forces us to place a daily emphasis – not just the day or two we go to a class – on being professional.”
Rose adds that Lake County has committed to not waiting for something to happen before addressing it, especially when it comes to building community relationships and fortifying the ideas of how police are serving residents.
“We need to be proactive,” Rose underscored. “The whole face of law enforcement is changing and we have to change with it.”
With the pressure to move forward in 2016 while acknowledging that these changes are playing out as a reaction to last year’s hot topics and intense public scrutiny, police officers must adopt a mantra to stay determined in the greater mission: