A controversial training for police officers has sparked an angry discussion among activists and community members who wonder how serious City Council and the Rochester Police Department are about improving community relations.
In mid-August, City Council approved $15,000 for RPD to send 10 officers to a training by the Force Science Institute, a traveling workshop that has a controversial history. Already 60 officers are signed up, financed by the Rochester Police Locust Club. According to the Force Science Institute’s website, the training is scheduled to take place Sept 25-29 at the Locust Club.
“We were surprised and concerned to read in the City Council legislation passed August 15, 2017 that an ordinance had been approved 9-0 to appropriate the sum of $15,000 from federal forfeiture funds for Rochester Police Department personnel to attend the Force Science Certification Course to be hosted by the Locust Club September 25-29, 2017,” stated Enough is Enough in a letter to the Mayor’s Office and City Council. Since Council has backpedaled on the money, but Barbara Lacker-Ware said they’re hoping the training is canceled altogether.
“I think it’s awful,” she said in a phone interview, discussing how the move makes RPD seem insincere about improving relations. She pointed out Wayne Harris’ failure to public address the matter. He was appointed Deputy Chief of Community and Engagements, a position created with the intent to work with the community. Repeated requests for comment from OM have also gone unanswered.
The training teaches skills that officers would need in the aftermath of a shooting or in the wake of an excessive force complaint. Officers learn to thoroughly and accurately remember details, how stress and trauma can impact officers’ memories and understand maintaining their cool. However, there are also some more controversial skills and lessons taught, including whether someone shot in the back was actually a threat or not. In a video posted to the site, the Institute’s founder Dr. William Lewinski shows how quickly he can shoot a gun and then turn around. The goal of that video is to show someone shot in the back can very well have just been shooting at a cop.
“We evaluated all types of training,” said Michael Mazzeo, president of the Locust Club. He argued the training is about analyzing force not advocating for it. “Technology has advanced but training how we evaluate that technology has not advanced.”
When asked why it focuses more on law enforcement and if this concerned him, Mazzeo said it deals with law enforcement.
“Some concerns have been raised but that’s what it deals with. If you have dental surgery training you take it to the American Dental Association.”
He added that it’s not just police officers taking the training but also attorneys and others in law.
And Lewinski himself is no stranger to controversy, and may be perhaps one of the driving forces of the controversy behind his institute. He has testified in roughly 200 cases of officers being tried for force. In almost all of those cases he has backed the officer, using his science to argue they were right to shoot the victim or at least arguing for how it could be understandable they were scared.
Mazzeo argued however that he seems to only defend cops because that’s the only time an officer would use his testimony. He said they wouldn’t call a witness to the stand if it directly contradicted their defense and “that’s true for other expert witnesses.”
“It’s a science embraced by all,” Mazzeo continued. “They teach de-escalation techniques. Perception is that it’s training for him to out of it but that’s not what it’s based on.”
“There’s a tremendous need for the application of human science in force investigations,” Lewinski says on his website. “Without it, controversial officer-involved shootings and other uses of force–even pursuits, which also involve split-second decision-making in highly stressful, rapidly evolving circumstances–can easily be misjudged, with devastating consequences.”
He argues that in the aftermath of these investigations, officers are often ripped apart, they’re reputation damaged and their job lost. However, a study by the Washington Post has found that across the nation, most cops who get in trouble legally often are reinstated due to appeals and other strategies by police unions. Sometimes this is to the detriment of the station, where problematic cops can be tough to get rid of. Other times, it can work as a balance, protecting a cop from the court of public opinion and being found unjustly wrong. Yet even before that point, Lewinski works to argue why that officer’s shooting was justified. There is very little mention of the victim or how to ensure they have a gun or not. There is more of a focus on understanding how different poses and reactions can be interpreted as threats to officers.
“A batter can’t wait for a ball to cross home plate before deciding whether that’s something to swing at,” he told the Los Angeles deputy sheriffs, according to the New York Times. “Make sense? Officers have to make a prediction based on cues.”
“Most of the faculty are medical doctors or hold PhDs in specialized disciplines of psychology and some have authored the leading textbooks in their fields. A few have worked closely with law enforcement and/or the military in the past, but “some will be adapting their findings on human behavior to a law enforcement context for the first time,” Lewinski said.
“In some cases officers have gone to prison and agencies have suffered crushing losses in civil suits because the factors in how humans perform under stress were not properly assessed by uninformed investigators,” he added.
Although the original 60 are still slated to go to the training, Mayor Lovely Warren has asked the RPD to hold off on the training. The August decision comes despite repeated promises from both RPD and City Council to take complaints of excessive force and brutality from the community more seriously.
“I think it says a lot more about City Council than the police,” said Jazzlyn Meeks, a local activist. She said she worries about holding the police accountable because she lives near St. Paul Avenue and “has seen first-hand what they can do.”
“I think though you kind of expect RPD to do something like this you know? This is the mess we talk about when we talk about them. How they’re trained. But City Council is supposed to kind of make sure they don’t do it.”
Mazzeo also expressed frustration with City Council saying he provided them information but that they backpedaled because it’s election year and a “time of politics” and stated they should address the issue.
“I think people want to hear from RPD and the mayor…,” Mazzeo continued. “When you don’t make those statements public it can lead people to believe something is wrong. “
And last year, this tension bubbled over, resulting in a protest that shut down East End for several hours on a busy Friday night. Over 70 people were arrested after the riot, the highest number of arrests across the nation from similar rallies.
Repeated requests for comments from City Council’s Adam McFadden, RPD’s Wayne Harris and Locust Club have gone unanswered. According to sources in Enough is Enough, future actions are being planned.