Clashes on the streets of Baltimore this week show relations between law enforcement and the public at a boiling point.
Protests turned to riots over the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old who suffered a spinal cord injury after being taken into police custody. Gray died a week later.
In Milford, the police department is using 21st-century technology to better prepare police for how to deal with potentially volatile confrontations with the public.
The city recently purchased a 300-degree virtual use-of-force decision making simulator manufactured by the company VirTra. It was purchased not with taxpayer dollars, but with seized assets. Milford has partnered up with eight departments from neighboring towns to share the costs of maintaining and training time.
The VirTra program places officers in any one of more than 125 real life scenarios. The training program combines what officers learn in the classroom and on the gun range with an emphasis on using verbal skills to de-escalate situations.
“We’d rather find out in here how an officer performs under real life stressors than how they would in the field because we can fix those problems in this simulator,” said Milford Police Chief Keith Mello, who says it’s the only training simulator of its kind in New England. “It allows an officer to hone their verbal skills and utilize their tactical skills, but more importantly they’re better equipped to make better decisions when it comes to use of force.”
The NBC Connecticut Troubleshooters got an exclusive look at how the simulator works. In one scenario, an officer responds to a noise complaint. Police arrive to find a couple sparring with each other before turning their anger on the officer. The confrontation turns ugly when the virtual actor grabs a rifle and aims at the officer. The officer responds in time and shoots the man before he is shot himself.
“Most important component of this is the after-action,” said Mello. “After they’ve gone through the scenarios, we can then dissect it, recreate it, talk about it. Is there better ways to handle this? What would we do differently?”
A trainer sitting in the same room controls how the actors respond to officers.
While Mello says officers have embraced the training simulator, some are not convinced it will deal with the real problems.
Scot X. Esdaile, president of the Connecticut NAACP, says problems with police and minorities runs much deeper.
“I don’t know what type of training that you carry out or implement in a police department to stop being racist,” said Esdaile who cites a recent report from the Connecticut Racial Profiling Prohibition Project.
The report found that state and local police in 29 communities pulled over minorities at a significantly higher rate that the population statistics show.
“We have a problem with police,” said Esdaile. “We have a problem with how they treat blacks in this country and in this state of Connecticut.”
He says in order for trust to be rebuilt between law enforcement and the community, officers need to be held accountable. He mentioned the police involved fatalities, but lack of indictments, in the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York.
State and local police we spoke with chose not to comment on Esdaile’s remarks, but Mello cites the training simulator and his department’s use of body cameras for the last two-and-a-half years as steps they’re making to improve interactions with the public.
Police restraint has been highlighted recently.
Just last week, a video surfaced showing a black teenager and a Hartford police officer in a struggle outside a Burger King restaurant. It’s unclear what happened in advance, but the teen was seen on video holding the officer in a chokehold. Once free, the officer ordered the teen to the ground, subduing the teen with a baton and pepper spray. The teen was charged with assault of a police officer and inciting a riot.
When asked if residents should better comply with police demands when confronted, Esdaile said “absolutely,” but added there are also “white people who don’t comply with police.”
This week here in Connecticut, a bill was proposed which would require mandatory use of body cameras and use of force training for all law enforcement.