Citizens' Police Academy: Something Old/Something New

(Cross Posted on Working Stiffs)

This week’s Citizens’ Police Academy was a two-fer. A little bit of something new and a little bit of something old was presented during our field trip to the training center.

Relatively new to Pittsburgh is the Crisis Intervention Team. Unlike SWAT, this is not a “response” team. Rather it’s a “collaborative” team in which the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police works with the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, Office of Behavioral Heath and state and county correctional institutions. Police training for this program began June 2007.

So much information was thrown at us in such a short span of time, my notes leave much to be desired. Hopefully our resident mental health specialist, Tory, can jump in with some additional comments.

The training gives officers an insight into mental illness so they can possibly de-escalate a mental health crisis when they are faced with those situations.

The police based Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) is the front door of a diversionary process used to divert people BEFORE they’ve done something requiring arrest. The team might be called to the scene if a report comes in of someone out on the street yelling at a stop sign or the neighbor has lined their fence with tin foil.

But it goes further, dealing with the mentally ill who have been arrested for nonviolent crimes. It’s a volunteer program allowing a person to be released on bond to Allegheny County Mental Health rather than being held in jail

It also can help when a mentally ill prisoner is released by bringing them into half-way houses and closely monitoring them during the transition back into the community.

Pittsburgh has a Central Recovery Center that opened in August 2007. It has a no eject/no reject policy and is an alternative to hospital or jail. It provides screening, assessment, and crisis prevention on a voluntary basis (a person cannot be involuntarily committed here). It also offers access to longer-term respite beds when needed and offers referrals to Behavioral Health Forensics Services as well as providing communication with family and significant others.

To date, 55 Pittsburgh officers have been trained and 15 other officers from outside the city. The goal is to eventually have enough officers with crisis intervention training so that someone will always be on duty and available to respond.

The second portion of this week’s class brought us in contact with a slightly older program. Pittsburgh has had a K-9 unit since November of 1958, making it the second oldest continuously running K-9 program in the United States (the oldest, by a mere matter of months, is Baltimore County, Maryland). Unlike many police dog programs across the country, Pittsburgh Police train their own dogs and provide in service training.

We were fortunate to be able to watch several dogs put through their paces including an obstacle course and going after a “suspect” dressed in a bulky bite suit. Think the Michelin Man with bite marks.

A police canine’s greatest asset to the department is its nose. They can provide a search for drugs or explosives (depending on how the dog is trained) faster than a human could and with less intrusion. A dog doesn’t have to open a bag to tell what’s in it.

A dog sniffing (or “snearching” as Sgt. Chris Micknowski called a sniff and search) drugs is trained to respond differently than a dog searching for explosives. A drug sniffing dog will act more aggressively when it has located an illegal substance, biting and scratching at the area where it’s hidden. With an explosive, understandably, you don’t want such an aggressive reaction. Those dogs are trained to respond more passively, such as sitting and looking at the area.

Something else I found interesting is that when a dog is to go into a building to locate a suspect who may be hiding there, there is no rush to get started. Time is on the officers’ side, because the longer a suspect remains in there, the stronger his odor becomes and the easier it is for the dog to find. Sgt. Micknowski used the example of peeling an onion and letting it sit. At first, only those closest to it would be able to smell it. But after a half hour, even those in the back of the room would be aware of that onion.

And it was stressed that the police need to call in a dog first, NOT AFTER they’ve already searched the building, adding their own odors and disturbing the suspect’s odor.

Also, unlike all other departments, in Pittsburgh, our dogs are trained to locate and bark at a suspect as long as he doesn’t attempt to flee or act aggressively. And when a dog goes after someone, it is not considered “attacking.” It’s one bite and hold. The dogs are trained to go for the back of the arms, shoulders, and the upper back of the suspect, the closer to the center of the upper back, the better. That way, the suspect is less likely to be able to harm the dog. We were able to witness several examples of this training. Believe me, if you ever encounter an unleashed police canine, DO NOT MOVE.

Police canines are considered a non-deadly type of force and therefore is safer for the suspect. If a human police officer were to go into a situation, he may need to pull his gun and use deadly force. A dog will cause pain, but won’t kill. How many times have you heard of people dying after being “tased”? How many times have you heard of people being killed by police canines?

The dogs also provide safety for their handlers. Often their mere presence is enough to cause a suspect to surrender. That’s also one of the reasons that German Sheppard’s are used so extensively. They have “the look.”

And they don’t need a piece of clothing to locate someone. They search by ground disturbance odors (at least, Pittsburgh’s dogs do).

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