Authorities, activists offer presentation on police training
In the wake of George Floyd's murder by a now-former Minneapolis police officer in May 2020, police critics were sharply divided between two very different demands for change.
The slogan that attracted the most attention was "defund the police," a call taken up by protesters in downtown Portland and other major cities.
Many "defund" advocates say police departments should have their budgets cut, with money that has been flowing to law enforcement redirected toward mental health care, addiction recovery, social work, conflict mediation and other methods of addressing problems without the involvement of armed police officers. Some even go so far as to call for police and prisons to be "abolished."
Not all critics of Floyd's murder insist that the police should be defunded or abolished, though. Many reacted by demanding that policing practices be reviewed and, where necessary, reformed. Instead of taking money out of police departments, they argue, local and state governments should invest in better training for police — steering them away from the "warrior cop" mindset, which has become popular in the United States in recent decades, toward a less confrontational, more community-oriented approach to law enforcement.
That change in approach is the subject of a presentation by an Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards & Training official and former Forest Grove police captain next Wednesday, July 14.
DPSST operations manager Mike Herb will host a presentation called "From Warrior to Guardian: Police Officer Training in Oregon" via Zoom, along with DPSST program development coordinator Staci Yutzie, from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Wednesday.
Herb, who was a member of the Forest Grove Police Department for 31 years before departing in 2017, will address the evolution of officer training and discuss how officers are being trained — or re-trained — since Floyd was killed.
"There's a needed emphasis on the kinds of things we're training recruits here in Oregon," Herb said. "Rather than officers just fact-finding, there has to be empathy for people. We're always looking for new innovative ways to train these skillsets, but in Oregon, and specifically the local area, we've been well ahead of the game in teaching these progressive concepts."
Forest Grove Chief Henry Reimann will also be on Wednesday's video call to clarify or answer any questions specifically about how his police department conducts training.
Forest Grove has been rocked by a series of law enforcement controversies since Floyd's murder.
The city was suspended last summer from a countywide facial recognition software program administered by the Washington County Sheriff's Office, after a police detective allegedly used it to profile a protester carrying an "anti-fascist action" flag at a peaceful demonstration in Forest Grove.
Last October, Officer Steven Teets — then-president of the Forest Grove police union — used a Taser in an encounter with an apparently intoxicated man wielding a flagpole. That man, James Marshall, stopped breathing, went into a coma and later died at a hospital. Investigators found no evidence of wrongdoing by police in that case, although Marshall's widow told Pamplin Media Group that she still blames them for her husband's death.
Weeks later, Teets — heavily intoxicated himself — allegedly became enraged at the sight of a "Black Lives Matter" flag flying above a local family's garage in the middle of the night. The family called 9-1-1 to report that a strange man was banging on the flag, then on their front door, demanding that they come out and fight him. Police officers arriving on the scene recognized Teets as a fellow officer and gave him a ride home instead of taking him into custody.
Both Teets and one of the responding officers, Bradley Schuetz, are now facing charges for their actions that night.
Those incidents in Forest Grove and others — particularly in Portland, where city police have drawn intense criticism from some community leaders and elected officials for their treatment of protesters — have raised legal and procedural questions regarding police conduct in Oregon.
Herb doesn't deny that reality. But he's dismayed by the "defund the police" movement, which he believes is misguided and unfair.
"It's frustrating to know that we are training folks the way that we know they need to be trained — while also being open to ways we can still improve — but at the same time, seeing calls for defunding, and seeing criticism that I know sometimes is not deserved by the hardworking men and women that I've worked with over the years," Herb said.
Herb is trying to bring those critics to the table.
In Forest Grove, the city created a community policing advisory commission last summer and held a virtual town meeting earlier this year at which officials acknowledged they need to improve relations between police and the community.
Forest Grove also has its own local chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice, or SURJ, a national anti-white-supremacy organization that boasts a "defund the police toolkit" on its website. But while many SURJ members line up with the "defund" camp in their approach to changing how policing works in the United States, the Forest Grove chapter of SURJ is hosting Herb and Yutzie's presentation on police training next Wednesday.
SURJ member and former News-Times editor Jill Rehkopf Smith — who wrote a series of columns about the Teets incident and its aftermath earlier this year, which were published in Pamplin Media Group newspapers — is moderating the videoconference.
Herb hopes to help people understand police's motivation. But he doesn't just want to change how community members view the police, he says — he wants to change how some police officers interact with the community.
"I think communities are calling for more engagement and less of that 'us versus them' mentality," Herb said. "There needs to be more of an understanding that we're all in this together."
Like others across the United States, many police departments in Oregon have, for years, been running "Coffee with a Cop" or similar community-based programs, providing a forum for people to sit down with police officers in a neutral setting and just have a conversation. Many of those programs have been put on hold during the pandemic.
Herb said it's important that people feel they're being heard by officers. A big part of that is officers recognizing and acknowledging the emotional state of the people with whom they are interacting.
"We're training officers to make an effort to actually give an empathy statement before they start gathering information," Herb said, "because the psychology and the research is out there that shows that when a person feels like they're being heard, they're going to be far more open to answering other questions, cooperating and being pleasant."
Specifically, Herb referenced the "four pillars of emotional intelligence" — namely, self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management — as a foundation for successful interaction.
"We feel that the foundation of good police training is how you deal with people," he said. "Especially in crisis."
Herb is hoping that people won't just tune into the DPSST presentation, but that they'll participate as well.
"In the end, it's about informing and educating folks on what we do, what we're doing, and the positive changes that are happening, also to answer questions that anybody may have and to be open to suggestions on how folks think we could still improve," Herb said. "We're never closed-minded to how we can do better, and we hope people will participate and help us do just that."
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