From the sidewalk up

Entire city police force gets retraining

May 18, 2008|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,Sun reporter

On a cold, rainy day last month, 36 Baltimore police officers who normally patrol the Northern District sat behind classroom desks on a Sykesville campus, learning how to become the Complete Officer.

The lecturer, Eric Greitens, was a former Navy SEAL who led missions in Fallujah, Iraq, to hunt down insurgents. The city officers copied down four phrases he wrote on a white board: No worse enemy. No better friend. No better diplomat. No better role model.

Those words, Greitens said, are meant to remind officers that if they want to win a crime war, they will need the help and respect of the people they serve.

The class is part of an unprecedented effort to retrain a police force dizzied by years of shifting crime-fighting strategies from a parade of short-term police commissioners. Commanders are concerned about a high number of police shootings and clashes with the community - including a well-publicized incident in which an officer was caught on video berating a skateboarding teen at the Inner Harbor.

Now the mission has moved again, and commanders want officers to build alliances in the communities while confronting the most violent people. "People cannot fight crime if they don't know how to fight crime," Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III said. Without proper training, Bealefeld fears, the force he commands could languish. "I don't want 2,900 scarecrows dressed up in police uniforms. I want people who are going to go out and do their jobs."

Even as the city experiences a steep decline in violent crime - a 32 percent reduction in homicides and 31 percent drop in shootings - the Baltimore Police Department is fighting a reputation for taking a rough-and-tumble approach that can alienate city residents. Police shot 33 people last year, up from 15 in 2006, higher than departments in Philadelphia and Washington, and only one less than Los Angeles.

The class in Sykesville was the beginning of a planned two-year effort to put all 2,900 officers on the city force through a month of training. The program is longer than any in the department's history and possibly the longest in-service training given by any department in the country. The pilot class cost $80,000, but that was discounted because of in-kind donations. Department officials don't have an estimate for the cost of retraining the entire force.

Bealefeld is passionate about the need for the training, but police union officials say they worry that it will take too many officers off the streets.

All aspects of job

The effort is designed to refresh officers' training in all aspects of the job. Instructors brought students from a middle school to Sykesville so officers could learn to talk with juveniles. They imported a shift of homicide detectives to talk about what to do at a crime scene and how to use words and body language to calm people's nerves.

Bealefeld did not draw a connection between the department's police shootings and the need for the training. But he stressed that confident officers with good communications skills are less likely to be confronted by suspects.

He said there are some occasions when no training can prevent a gunfight. In mid-March five officers got into an 88-round shootout with a suspect who had two guns and was wearing body armor. In mid-April, police found themselves in an afternoon firefight in Southwest Baltimore in which a suspect exchanged gunfire with three different groups of officers before he fell.

That gunbattle, and several others, came out of Bealefeld's directive that officers should engage violent criminals. For them to do that safely, he said, they need much better training.

In Sykesville at the Maryland Police and Correctional Training Commission, the instructors worked from a lesson plan titled "Neutral Linguistics." The introduction reads: "A Police officer's daily duties and responsibilities on average consist of approximately 95 percent communication and five percent use of force."

Trainers asked a group of 10 officers to pair up and act out a scenario from their beat in which they confronted a tense situation. Officers generally didn't talk about life-and-death situations but about the minor disputes they frequently have to settle.

Chris K. Thomas, a 13-year veteran of the force, told a story about a man who called 911 to get help returning a pair of tennis shoes. The officer viewed the call as well outside his job responsibilities and became frustrated even as he re-enacted the scene.

"This really happened to me," he said incredulously.

The trainers and policing experts argue that the training will help officers prevent situations from escalating. Criminals are more apt to confront officers who lack confidence, are in poor physical shape or even have a sloppy appearance, they said.

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