Law enforcement officers and about 50 Franklin County High School kids had a blast together two weeks ago, and it didn’t come from the spigot of a keg or the barrel of a gun.
Rather, it was a morning-long series of role playing sessions, coordinated by the U.S. Attorney’s Office together with the sheriff’s office and the schools,, that offered the students a chance to get inside the minds of officers as they confront the sort of uncertain circumstance they encounter every day.
“If you don’t know a police officer, whenever you have an interaction with them, it can be stressful, because you don’t know what to expect, because you haven’t ever been there before,” said Christopher Canova, the interim U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Florida since April 2016.
“Whenever we can reduce the stress level in any situation it’s better for the police officer, and better for the citizen because it’s less likely anybody will do something inappropriate or force has to be used,” said.
The BLAST program, which stands for Building Lasting Relationships Between Police and Community, was developed two years ago by Canova’s office, based on a prototype they modified out of southern Alabama.
In those two years, Blast has been conducted in seven of the district’s 23 counties, and touched the lives of more than 11,000 students.
On Jan. 18, it was Franklin County’s turn, and after a welcome and introduction from Canova and Sheriff A.J. Smith, the various officers taking part in the four sessions - traffic stop, domestic violence, criminal justice overview and use of force simulation - got down to business in the field house.
The 50 students chosen for the program was a blend that included at-risk students as well as members of the football team.
“This is to see what you should do or not do,” said Florida Highway Patrol Master Cpl. Patricia Shaw, as she conducted the session on traffic stops, together with colleague Kelly Hildreth, a district commander. “It’s about something that could end your life, save your life, or lose your job.”
Behind the scenes, the students in the car were told how to act, and were accompanied by Deputy Brock Johnson, who egged them on in their unruliness. At the same time, those who were chosen to portray officers who had stopped the car had to decide whether it was time to call for back-up, or to use their Taser or even more deadly force.
“First you ask him, then you tell him, then you make him,” advised Shaw to the student portraying the officer. ”Most officers have cameras. Cameras can protect you if you’re doing something right.”
The students discussed whether it was best, given the circumstances, to approach the car from passenger or driver’s side, or whether to use a spotlight on the rear view mirror to disorient those in the car.
In one instance, the female student was acting more angrily to her boyfriend in the car, than he was to either her or the officer, and it created a perplexing hypothetical situation for law enforcement.
“Now who is the more aggressive person?” asked Shaw, of the student playing the officer. “She’s telling him (her boyfriend) he’s not going anywhere. You mean nothing, And he’s more scared of her than he is of you.”
In another case, the female in the car began to cry when she was given a ticket. “That’s one thing that women will do,” said Shaw. “They’re going to cry. You have to firm at what you’re doing.”
She said officers are told to be pleasant, but often they will encounter individuals who are sent the wrong message at home from their parents. “They teach them to resist us, not to listen to anything we say,” she said, adding that in small close-knit communities such as Franklin, that is less often the case, with people more family-oriented.
In the domestic violence reenactment, Johnny McDonald, from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives, joined with Gary Martina and Dwayne Coulter from the sheriff’s office to show students how tense such confrontations can be.
“That’s a situation where police officers come in and they don’t get a lot of cooperation,” said Canova. “There’s a lot of unpredictability because there’s a lot of passions flowing.
“If somebody has potentially hurt somebody they love, they’re not going to stop from hurting anybody. Nothing’s going to get in their way.”
In reviewing how the students had role played the situation, McDonald noted that they had overlooked the fact the young guy pitching a fit was a felon with a gun. “When we hear the word weapon, bells go off,” he said.
In a third session, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Coody, and Michael Laird, a special agent with the Department of Homeland Security, shared a video with the students, and then discussed each phase of a federal criminal case, including investigation, prosecution, and sentencing, stressing the harsh penalties the feds have for drug crimes.
In the fourth sessions, Ken Tucker, a former head of the Florida Department of Corrections, worked with School Resource Officer Allen Ham, on a use of force simulation, where students could see their reaction time, on special audio-visual equipment, as if they were a officer confronted with a life-threatening situation.
Tucker, a former Daytona police officer who rose through the Florida Department of Law Enforcement ranks to become head of DOC, is set to retire this month after 43 years in law enforcement. “I have never given up on trying to make a difference,” he said.
Following the sessions, the students were treated to lunch, and Canova thanked Smith, a longtime colleague, and the deputies for their efforts. “Everyone’s enjoyed it,” said Canova. “They like to engage with the students.
“There’s been a lot of negative images on TV,” he added. “Most of the time when you see something on the news about police officers, it’s negative. They’re not showing a lot of the positive things police officers do.”