According to Paul Banach, director of Baltimore City’s police academy, training must emphasize that community engagement and service is the priority of any officer.
The academy is trying to cultivate an environment of thinkers with its newer training programs, says Banach, which attempt to develop officers with greater emotional intelligence who can handle high stress encounters with civilians without resorting to force.
“We don’t want to create the aura that this is a use of force type of job. First priority is community engagement and community service,” said Banach, whose law enforcement career spans 36 years, and has been training police forces domestically and abroad for about 15 years. He took over Baltimore’s Professional Development and Training Academy last June.
“We’re looking at all the best practices throughout the country to ensure that when our officers are coming out to a scene, that . . . they’re not coming out with the intent of locking everybody up, that it’s ‘Let’s find out what the problems are and try to help solve some of the community issues,’” Banach said.
Banach said the Academy’s de-escalation training was reworked because it was too focused on interactions with persons suffering from mental health issues or intoxicated during an engagement with an officer. “What we want to address is that every day, when our officers go on the job, they may not be dealing with all of those things, they may be dealing with people who are just emotionally attached to a situation,” said Banach.
“It’s totally human for to be upset because maybe that person being arrested is the bread winner of the family. The officer does not know that. The officer’s objective is to secure the person in handcuffs, to make sure they’re not armed with a weapon, and to gather evidence. If they’re not aware of the other emotional attachment to that scene of the other people, there’s a chance that there’s going to be more conflict, and the situation’s going to escalate,” said Banach. He added that the new training would use live practical scenarios to help officers develop a ‘communication pattern’ to deescalate tense situations.
Using live practical exercises is part of the academy’s effort to incorporate adult learning principles as well as cognitive science into its training. The academy has sought to limit PowerPoint presentations as much as possible, preferring practical exercises using real people which get officers more directly engaged, which research shows is more effective for adult learners.
The academy has teamed with a cognitive scientist, Dr. Jonathan Page, to incorporate research into the way stress affects the thinking process in tense situations in the training process. In controlled stress environments, officers are taught mental imagery techniques and to focus on certain key words to help officers keep a clear head and better analyze a situation to determine whether force is necessary or whether de-escalation might work better.
“Once the heart rate gets up to around 150 beats per minute under mental stress, the brain’s ability to think is diminished,” said Banach, adding that practicing in a controlled stress environment allows the officer to not only experience how stress affects thinking, but also to practice controlling that stress.
About two years ago, the Academy began implementing implicit bias training into its curriculum and Banach says that between 1500 – 1800 officers have already received this training.
The training consists first of learning the concept – that we carry many subconscious biases – then helping officers identify what their unconscious triggers might be by, and asking officers to explain their reaction to, or assumptions about, the person. The real work is in the officers taking this knowledge and working on themselves to continually analyze what implicit biases they may be operating under.
“If you have not identified within yourself what your issues are, then really you’re not being able to train yourself,” said Banach. “That’s what this whole program is designed to do, that, through having a number of officers trained in this, there’s a support system. That it’s pretty much watching out for each other and helping each other identify what negative aspects may come about during an encounter with somebody, and how to correct them and hopefully make that correction. And here’s where that thinking comes in: you think about, you know about what makes you react in certain ways, but then develop a plan to alleviate that in the future.”
Ultimately, the goal is to drive home the message that community engagement and service is the first priority of any officer. “Obviously we have to train them in tactics,” said Banach, “but we can’t have the tactics being the overriding part of the curriculum. Community engagement, working with people is key because our philosophy is to the point of, if you have proper verbal skills and people skills, there’s a good chance you may never have to use force.”