CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE – Emotions can run high when police a stop a vehicle, or when officers arrive at the scene of a potential issue.
Anxiety. Fear. Frustration. A heart beats faster when a siren sounds, or there’s an unexpected knock at the door. Glancing into car’s rearview mirror and seeing a police car's flashing lights is enough to put most on edge.
A resident can experience any number of emotions when they’re faced by law enforcement, said Middle Township Police Christopher Leusner. That’s why it’s important to give police skills to deal with rising tension.
“We want to give our officers strategies to deal with a situation,” Leusner said.
Last week, as part of ongoing training for Cape May County police and sheriff’s officers, about 90 officers attended classes at the Cape May County Police Academy presented by Joel Francis, a national trainer with the Verbal Judo Institute.
Francis spent 20 years with the New York Police Department, where he trained officers in tactical communications, interacting effectively with the public, defensive tactics, and firearms safety and proficiency.
Francis was also part of the NYPD’s Verbal Judo training unit, where he taught the “Art of Persuasion.”
“Most of the time, when officers are dealing with people, those people are under an emotional influence,” Francis said during a Monday interview.
“They might be scared. There could be anxiety. Frustration.” Police need to understand that law enforcement’s intervention into an issue adds new stress to what could already be a volatile situation.
“We have to try and see things from a civilian’s point of view,” Francis said.
“Police have to think about how they show up at a situation,” he said. “Do you look like you’re there to help? Or are you there for a confrontation?”
Police Academy Director Thomas DePaul said that course in Verbal Judo gave officers a chance to learn from life lessons, to better understand how police are perceived, and how that perception can change.
“Our body language is important,” DePaul said. “Our body actions and movements may not be saying the same thing.” Words must match the actions, he said.
Leusner said the courses could give officers not only insight into a situation, but empathy and understanding.
“With Verbal Judo, we’re teaching officers to use their words, and not have to rely on their ability to use force to get compliance,” he said.
“That doesn’t mean police won’t use force if necessary,” Leusner said. “But it’s important to give officers tools to understand how to verbally deescalate a situation.”
Earlier this year, county law enforcement had classes in implicit bias, Leusner said. Those sessions were aimed at giving police a look at misconceptions concerning age, race, gender or religion.
An upcoming training course will include a firearm simulator, which will put officers into hostile situations through a series of five movie screens and surround sound tied to a computer.
“The firearm simulator will give officers a chance to deescalate a situation,” Leusner said. “We can create an environment and have police officers learn from it.”
Leusner and DePaul credited county Prosecutor Robert Taylor as a driving force for continuing education for law enforcement, and noted that the prosecutor’s office has helped fund many of the training programs at the academy.
“The prosecutor is clearly committed to the best training for our officers, and he’s provided money for the firearms simulator,” DePaul said.
“I believe the training their getting at the police academy in top shelf,” Taylor said. “The Verbal Judo classes give the officers the type of training they’ll be able to use to defuse a hostile situation without using force.”
Taylor said his office planned to contribute $60,000 from the forfeiture fund for the firearm simulator.
“Anything we can do to enhance the training of our officers, I’m all for it,” he said.
David Benson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.