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From the sidewalk up

The Baltimore Sun

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.

"All of these things are perceived as signs of weakness," said Adam Walinsky, who designed the training. "People on the street are much more likely to challenge officers who were any of those things. If you want to cut down on shootings, you want to cut down situations where young men can or should challenge the police physically or using deadly weapons."

In recent years, the city has seen an unusually large number of police shootings. The 33 police shootings in Baltimore in 2007, with 13 people killed, almost match the 2007 numbers for the Los Angeles police, who protect a city of 3.8 million. Officers there shot 34 people, with 15 fatalities. The same year Philadelphia, a city of 1.4 million people, had 20 police shootings, seven fatal.

Baltimore has a disproportionate number of police shootings, Bealefeld said, because it has more gun crime than those cities. He said he has instructed his officers to be aggressive in their efforts to stop violent criminals. He pointed to the gunfight in Southwest Baltimore last month that started when Officer Mark T. Spila spotted a suspected gang member and stopped his car after it made a high-speed U-turn.

"Spila knew those guys were gang guys," Bealefeld said. "He believed it likely that they had guns. It is that specific hunting down bad guys with guns. Our guys are engaging more. I recognize the need to do this in a very safe manner."

Not so clear-cut

But there are other cases in which police shootings have led to questions.

Police Officer Tommy Sanders shot Edward Lamont Hunt in January in Northeast Baltimore. Hunt's family is filing a civil suit against the department, and their attorney, A. Dwight Pettit, said that Hunt had been searched by police just before being shot. "They knew he was unarmed," Pettit said.

Pettit has won civil cases and settlements in some of the department's more controversial police shootings. He said that in court he clamors for more police training.

"There is no training on sensitivity," said Pettit, who applauded the department's new training effort. "A police officer goes in and shoots first. ... They are getting more trigger-happy."

The new program includes a week of tactical training for Columbine-like situations, a weeklong refresher on crime scenes, a week of communications training and a week on arresting and controlling violent offenders without using deadly force.

That last part was led by Lew Hicks, another former Navy SEAL who has trained city officers before. "I teach moral and ethical decision-making under stress," Hicks said in a phone interview. "A large portion of it is confidence-building scenarios, how to treat people with dignity and respect, focusing on fixing fractures between the community and police force."

But some question whether the scope of the effort leaves some parts of the city unprotected - all of the officers who patrol a district in a given eight-hour period are taken off duty for training for a month.

"You can never have too much training, but the logistics of that are huge," said Dr. Michael White, an associate professor with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice who concentrates on police use of force. "You are going to have to come up with the coverage."

Police union President Paul Blair argued that police districts are already short-staffed.

"One of my biggest complaints that I get from my officers is districts that are so short that they are having a hard time getting days off," he said.

While the beat officers were at training, there was a series of high-profile crimes in the Northern District, including a homicide in Remington and a rape in Charles Village. None of them occurred during shifts when those officers would have been on duty.

Some officers also worried that police filling in for those in training would be unfamiliar with their posts, causing them to make wrong turns and be slow in responding to calls.

Bealefeld brushed off these concerns. "We're not sending people to France. The badge says Baltimore. I hear all of this stuff. It is more excuses."

The commissioner argued for the program at a graduation dinner for the first class of trainees: "I am not saying do more. Do what you are trained to do. You are on the verge of history here. I will spend every last drop of energy seeing this through."

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