ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. - Training at the St. Louis County and Municipal Police Academy is all about building a strong foundation. Lessons build upon each other to develop strong, confident and capable officers.
"Our (defensive tactics training) is very important, shooting is important, but I don't know if sometimes the public understands how the communication aspect fits into it," said academy instructor Nikki Brown.
Brown teaches recruits how to use their words to prevent or deescalate an emotionally charged situation with a technique called "verbal judo."
"If you can steer that person in a direction that doesn't lead to violence or doesn't lead to conflict, then you never have to put your hands on someone or to pull the trigger," said Recruit Trevor Green.
Brown has been an officer with the St. Louis County Police Department for nine years. She has been an instructor at the academy since 2015. In addition, she is an adjunct professor in criminal justice at Lindenwood University, and she is pursuing her doctoral degree at Maryville University. Brown fosters a classroom environment where recruits are encouraged to ask questions and share ideas.
To better understand and communicate with the public, Brown first challenges recruits to acknowledge their own bias. She uses the diversity of the classroom to help broach some difficult topics like race, socioeconomic background, religion, age, gender, and sexual orientation.
The recruits discuss eventually working with people in the community who may have a negative view of police officers. Brown talks to them about why someone might be fearful or have a distrust of police.
Brown explains how a past experience, media, social media, or an experience that a family member or friend had may skew someone's attitude toward police. She said the origin of someone's fear may be rooted in history.
The class examines the role police played during the Holocaust and their connection to Nazi soldiers. Then, they look at the formation of slave patrols in the early years of the United States.
"Law enforcement, at one point in time, their role was 'I'm going to gather and collect property and take it back to an owner,'" she said.
The lessons continue into the Civil Rights era, where law enforcement was required to enforce Jim Crow Laws that were far from "separate but equal." Many people recognized and questioned why the laws disproportionately targeted African-Americans.
"It's understanding that people have their own history, and sometimes the history is difficult for them to overcome. Now as law enforcement officers, where do we find the common ground to ensure that we're able to still move forward?"
Brown does not shy away from the hot topics that have gone viral on social media and YouTube like traffic stops, use of force, and police shootings and subsequent court cases.
"People have legitimate concerns, and it's important that at the academy you get that foundation that you're able to answer some of those concerns."
Brown emphasizes the importance of communication training especially for some of the most challenging calls.
"Responding to a domestic violence call could potentially be one of the most dangerous calls that we respond to just because they are so emotionally charged and you have no idea what you're walking into," said Recruit Mary Mills.
There is a lot for an officer to consider when they are dispatched to a domestic violence call, said Brown, before an officer ever reaches the destination.
"What priority is it? Is the suspect still there? Not still there? If so, do you have a suspect description? Do you have information that a weapon has been used? If so, what kind of weapon? Do you have information that there have been injuries to one or more parties? If so, what kind of injuries? Is EMS en route? Are children on scene? How many people can you determine on scene? Is this something dealing with a couple? Something dealing with a family? So we start with, what do I have? What do I need to know? And how do I safely get there? So we go over planning of the route. How do you pull up to a domestic violence call? Do you want to pull up right in front of the house? Do you want to go back two or three houses? Then we discuss what`s most tactically sound based on what you have and your approach. Will you knock on the door? What do you hear? What do you see? Can you hear or see anything?"
Brown also teaches the recruits about working with juveniles in the justice system, and recruits took a tour of the new family court building. Brown explains how working with juveniles presents a unique set of challenges because an officer must understand how thinking and decision making is different for a juvenile because their brain has not fully developed, and the notification process for juvenile cases is different than for adults.
To see more of Fox 2/KPLR 11's exclusive look inside the academy, visit www.fox2now.com/academy.