The “easy way” up the 50-foot tower involves shimmying up a telephone pole and a rope ladder. “Use that rope as a step,” Lt. Chris Oree yells up as I try to transition from the 60-degree log to a small platform about 12 feet below the top.
There are two other guys climbing up harder routes, part of a recruit training class at the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) academy on Northern Parkway. “It’s about being scared to death to do something and doing it anyway,” Oree says. The ride down—they’re lowered in the climbing harness by their fellow cadets—helps build trust, he adds. Trust is everything here, and lately it’s in short supply.
The tower was opened to a handful of reporters on Feb. 28 after the BPD invited the media to a demonstration of the controversial Diamond Standard and Hicks training (“City Police Training Under Scrutiny,” Mobtown Beat, Jan. 18). The two-hour tour included hands-on demonstrations for representatives from several local print and TV outlets. It’s kind of a self-defense tactic for the training program itself.
John King, recently hired director of BPD’s education and training division, says the department is promoting its unique training program with an eye toward exporting it. It’s good public relations—the public can get a fuller picture of police culture. It’s also good business—if other departments take up the Diamond Standard, a central criticism of it will be blunted.
An Independent Review Board questioned the department’s use of the Diamond Standard in a report last fall. The board was empaneled by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake after two people, including a Baltimore City Police officer, were killed by police outside the Select Lounge on the city’s west side. City Councilmember Brandon Scott (D-2nd District) has held a hearing on the training system, which cost more than $500,000 to develop. The city’s contract with a small New York nonprofit has come under scrutiny, as has the related $2 million contract with former Navy SEAL Lew Hicks, who has taught “skeletal manipulation” techniques in Baltimore off and on since 2000. Scott says he is concerned with the cost of the training consultants and the fact the programs are not used by other departments.
The department’s Diamond Standard demonstrations seem to be having the desired effect. “The transparency they show by inviting us in . . . it’s great,” says Scott, who with fellow councilmembers went through a similar show-and-tell last month. “People in this town see the Police Department as this big castle they can’t go in.” Scott says he received more than 500 pages of requested documents pertaining to training from BPD on Feb. 24. He says he wants his fellow Public Safety Committee members to read them before he schedules the next hearing date.
The tour begins on the second floor of the academy, a decommissioned 1950s city school building that BPD took over and rehabbed about two years ago. The room has the feel of a science lab crossed with an abandoned warehouse. Long cafeteria-style tables are arranged haphazardly around a projector and screen. Deputy Commissioner John Skinner advises the print reporter and two or three TV people with their camera crews in tow to “notice the level of interest” among the cadets: “This is not a show. This is how it is every day.”
King walks us through the Diamond philosophy. In the first week of classes the trainees are taught tactical self-defense and weapons skills so there will be “no worse enemy” than them, as the Diamond Standard mantra goes, to those who would physically challenge police authority. The following weeks cover the “no better friend,” “no better diplomat,” and “no better role model” aspects of the program, in that order. It is not entirely clear how the “role model” and “diplomat” curricula differ; King mentions “ambassador” in both. But the “friend” part starts with a community dinner, and the “diplomat” lessons are built around an Outward Bound experience with youths from the neighborhoods these cops are policing, the idea being to break down barriers between the community and the department.
More than 1,800 of the city’s 3,200 police officers have been through the Diamond training, and they go through in units, so they train with the people they work with every day. This is a huge selling point for the program, King says, particularly in tactical situations when police need to know what their fellow officers are thinking. “First, the officer is safe,” he says. “Then the community is.”
The tour continues through several third-floor “crime scene rooms” furnished to look like a convenience store, a nightclub, and an ordinary living room with a doorway into a bedroom. Trainees who neglect to search under the bed for bad guys are often hit with a paintball round, King says.
We look in on another class in progress, in which the city’s chief homicide detective is taking a question about military tactics. “This goes back to incident command,” he responds. “Crowd control. You guys are going to learn crowd control next week.”
“About 60 percent of the trainings this year will be based on lessons learned from the Select Lounge incident,” Skinner tells the reporters in the hall.
Back down on the first floor, a cadet class is running wind sprints in the wide hall. They halt so the guests can cross into the gymnasium, where paired trainees are slowly swinging a stick at each other, tumbling to the ground, and taking turns taking it away.
“These students are working on ground survival,” says Lew Hicks, whose business card reads moral and ethical decisions under stress. This is one of Hicks’ specialities: specific hand and foot (and weapon) techniques used to regain control when an attacker knocks you down. “[This] represents the highest level of threat,” Hicks says.
To augment the physical techniques, trainees also read Aristotle, Hicks says, “to let them know there is this moral thread that runs through all of their training.”
Hicks is a compact man who appears to be in his mid-40s or early 50s. He says he comes to Baltimore less and less often these days, as police he’s already trained take over the classes, which usually consist of many high-speed repetitions of the same basic techniques. “We have to put them in tachycardia so they will respond [on the street] the way they train,” Hicks says. “It gives them an unbelievable amount of courage.”
He asks the smallest instructor, Officer Tarsha Holmes, to demonstrate on me how police hang onto their guns without firing them or using them against assailants who try to take them. He instructs me to grab Holmes’ gun as she walks past. I give it my best try, get into a momentary tug of war with the female officer, and then she kicks between my legs, just enough so I feel it. I yelp and let go. The other reporters laugh.
Hicks drives the point home with his class. “If there is a gun involved, where do you go?” he shouts.
“Go to the gun, sir!” comes back the chorus.
Across the same room as the hand-to-hand class is a “judgmental shooting” range presided over by Lt. John Cromwell. The targets, 9 feet away, are shaped like milk bottles divided in three. In each box there is an equation such as 7+3 or 6-2. The equations are meant to simulate the level of thinking necessary for an officer to determine whether it’s safe and right to shoot. “You’ve got to think,” Cromwell says. “Is that the right suspect? Do I have other options?”
He helps the newspeople correctly hold the semiautomatic pistol that shoots foam slugs about the size and consistency of an earplug. “Six” he shouts in our ear and we’re supposed to shoot the equation that sums to six. “Three!” There is no three. “Ten!” The gun recoils and cycles its cartridges much like a real 9mm does, necessitating eye protection. “This is planting a seed,” Cromwell says. “I want them to think!”
In the next room the Ti firearms simulation system is set up with a huge projector screen and a series of weapons. The trainee is presented with a scenario—it could be a garage, or a house where a guy is beating his wife and holding a deer rifle. “There are 300 scenarios,” King says. The action in each scenario is changed by the computer operator according to what the trainee does and says. One of the reporters is teed up in a garage/office. She calls out and a scruffy-looking dude stands up from behind a desk and sarcastically congratulates her: “You just busted the shop owner.” His right hand remains hidden behind some junk on his desk, and it takes a bit of coaxing before he shows it, holding a wallet and ID.
The scenario is a success because the “officer” remains calm and uses only words to get the suspect to comply, King says: “Why would we bring these guys in here and just have them shoot, shoot, shoot?”
Another scenario runs, this time a woman rocking on a couch, talking of suicide, holding a knife. The reporter talks until she puts it down. “I was going to tase her,” he tells the officer operating the simulator.
“What if she tried to take you with her?” the officer asks.
The instructors never tell the trainees they should have shot, or should not have shot, a particular person in a particular scenario, Cromwell explains. They just articulate when the shooting would or would not be justified.
The Ti system differs from an older competing system called F.A.T.S. in that it includes less lethal weapons such as the taser. In a typical F.A.T.S. scenario, the computer simulation begins with the command, “Load your weapons.”
The Ti scenarios the reporters try begin when the instructor says “Go,” after telling us what the call is—“armed man in the park,” in my case. The screen lights up, showing a field and a tree, then gunshots ring out. The camera pans right to a man with dreadlocks standing over and pointing a big pistol at a guy lying on the ground.
“Drop your weapon,” I yell.
“I’m a cop,” he yells back.
“Drop it now,” I respond, and Dreads complies, thanks to the fast fingers of the simulator operator. The picture pauses very briefly each time the scenario branches; the operator no doubt could make Dreads shoot me, or shoot the guy on the ground again, or run, any of which would have me blasting away at him. Or the operator could make the guy on the ground come up with a gun and shoot me or Dreads, or both of us. I clearly get away easy.
Cromwell takes my gun and demonstrates what happens when a trainee makes a different choice, dispatching Dreads with four shots. “See, when this happens, we let the scene play out,” Cromwell says, as the onscreen undercover cop slumps over a park bench. “We replay it again so the officer can hear him say, ‘I’m a cop.’”