- - Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Fairfax County Criminal Justice Academy recently opened its doors to reporters to show them what it’s like to serve as a police officer in a variety of scenarios, such as a traffic stop or a bar room dispute.

“[O]ne of the biggest factors in getting public trust is getting public understanding,” Fairfax County Police 2nd Lt. Daniel Pang told the journalists at the academy in Chantilly. “If they understand why we’re doing what we’re doing, it will make sense to them, and they will trust that we did the right thing.”

Police Pfc. Monica Meeks noted that many drivers likely worry about being pulled over by police, but she said that officers are just as concerned about traffic stops.

After traffic accidents and domestic violence calls, “traffic stops are the third-leading cause of police fatalities,” Pfc. Meeks said.

Before going out to the academy’s back lot to carry out a mock traffic stop, reporters learned how to safely conduct one, such as knowing when and where to pull the car over and how to position the police cruiser so it won’t kill you if it’s struck by a passing car.

“Officers never know who or what they’re going to encounter during a traffic stop,” Lt. Pang said. “When you start treating a traffic stop as something routine, routine kills.”

WTOP Radio reporter Kathy Stewart said she felt “uneasy” and “on edge” during her traffic stop because “there’s too much stuff going on. I had no control.”

“You need to have 360-degree awareness,” said WTOP anchor John Aaron. “You’re worried that the driver in the stopped car could be dangerous, but you can’t forget that there would be traffic zipping by too. It’s a lot to juggle.”

Lt. Pang said officers usually encounter rude and argumentative drivers who unleash a verbal barrage because they have been stopped.

Every reporter failed to notice weapons — a loaded semi-automatic handgun or a knife — in plain view during their mock traffic stops.

“The public often thinks we’re being too aggressive,” motorcycle patrol Pfc. Mark Pollard said. “We just want to go home safely to our families at the end of the day.”

Reporters also learned how officers use de-escalation techniques to help “an armed subject in crisis” to prevent injury to anyone. Officers employ “soft” skills, like empathy and communication, to diffuse a potentially violent situation.

The key, Pfc. Tawny Wright said, is being “empathetic” and “trying to figure out what brought [them] to this point.” If no crime has been committed, officers can refer the individual to community services such as counseling for assistance.

Pfc. Wright noted that millennial recruits have a steep learning curve because they lack face-to-face communications skills, having been “glued to their cellphones” and communicating via text or social media apps.

For the de-escalation exercise, reporters went to “Practical Way,” a Hollywood-like set with a pizzeria, deli, bar, barbershop and apartments, where volunteer actors who have attended the police department’s 10-week Citizen’s Police Academy go full-throttle in testing recruits’ de-escalation techniques and self-defense skills.

During his de-escalation exercise, Sun Gazette reporter Brian Trompeter said he was “scared” and had difficulty conversing with a drunk (Michael Persico) in Leo’s Bar who was armed with a hammer and refused to leave.

Pfc. Wright took over the exercise and demonstrated how to de-escalate.

“Do you know you scared off all of the customers and the owner called us?” she said in a friendly tone to the drunken hammer-holder. “Are you OK? Is something bothering you?”

Sometimes it doesn’t work. WTOP’s Mr. Aaron noted how “just our presence as ‘officers’ could escalate things. You’re not yourself, you’re just the ‘police.’ I was surprised at how hesitant I was to pull my ‘weapon.’ It would not have ended well for me in the real world.”

When this happens, an officer must quickly decide the appropriate level of force necessary to get “armed subject in crisis” to comply, police instructors said.

“If an officer’s life, his partner’s life or the public is in danger, then we must act,” Lt. Pang said.

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