A look inside the Homer Police Department’s training, use of force policies

As locally held protests in support of the national (and international) Black Lives Matter movement come to an end, conversation about racial injustice and the way the criminal justice system works in America continues.

That conversation also has been happening in Homer, as local activists want to know more from Homer Police about their own use-of-force policies and cultural and racial sensitivity training.

In the wake of the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 25, protests large and small have been sparked across the country and the world, including in Alaska. Four officers have been criminally charged for their involvement in his death.

Each Sunday in June has an hour in WKFL Park dedicated to speakers and education about racial injustice. While the daily protests that were held from 2-4 p.m. each day, also in the park, from May 30 to June 6 have ended, some protesters and members of the community want a continuing dialogue, including one with the local police department.

Homer Police Chief Mark Robl, Homer Volunteer Fire Department Chief Mark Kirko and Homer Mayor Ken Castner all attended the protest held last Thursday as part of the daily demonstrations. They spoke to the small crowd assembled in the park, and Robl answered questions from participants about how the local police department handles things like use of force.

“What happened to George Floyd in our country is totally inexcusable,” Robl told the crowd at last Thursday’s protest. “It’s a crime.”

Robl said he was happy to see that the officers involved were “charged appropriately” for what they did. The main officer who was shown in video footage to have kneeled on Floyd’s neck for several minutes, Derek Chauvin, has been charged with second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

Protest organizer Winter Marshall-Allen, a local teacher, thanked the mayor, fire chief and police chief for supporting the protesters.

“I appreciate you guys coming out here and initiating the dialogue even further with the community,” she said. “It really is about conversations. It’s about broader conversations. It’s about conversations where not everybody’s going to walk away agreeing, but everybody needs to walk away respecting each other.”

Marshall-Allen emphasized the importance of local involvement and voting. Putting people in office who will support fire and police departments having the proper tools, and staying vigilant about training and ethics oversight of these departments are two things she mentioned.

“These gentlemen are here to protect us,” she said. “But if we don’t make sure that they have a lens of equity and that they’re facilitating their code of ethics and that they’re following it, like these gentlemen are, then we have issues like what happened in Minneapolis.”

Still, Marshall-Allen wants more information. How often are the Homer Police completing training? What are the names of those programs, and what’s the cultural piece of that training? Robl addressed some questions about how officers are training, and specifically how they are trained to use force, during the protest.

In follow up emails and an interview with the Homer News, he shared more of those details.

Use of force

Much of the current national conversation surrounding policing in the United States revolves around use of force. This is when verbal commands are no longer effective and an officer moves forward to physical contact with the person they’re interacting with.

In Homer, officers not only have to fill out and submit a use-of-force form every time they use force on a person, Robl said, but also any time they threaten to use force. Police department data Robl provided shows that in 2018, from the 11 Homer Police officers, there were submitted eight use-of-force forms for force that was actually used, and two forms for force being threatened. In 2019, there were nine forms submitted for force used, and five submitted for force threatened.

So far in 2020, four forms have been submitted for force used, and four have been submitted for force threatened.

Robl also provided the total number of Homer Police Department arrests for 2018 (542) and for 2019 (522).

These use-of -force forms are filed separately from the incident reports officers have to fill out, Robl said. They are kept on file at the department and are reviewed by himself and the lieutenant officer, Ryan Browning. When reviewing use of force forms, Robl said he’s looking for three things:

1) Does the department have an officer who’s submitting more use-of-force forms than the others who potentially needs to be addressed?

2) Does the number of forms submitted indicate that there is a specific training area that needs to be revisited or that increased training is needed?

3) Does the department need to revisit or revise its use-of-force policies?

When it comes to those use-of-force policies, Robl said there is not actually specific language included about escalation and de-escalation practices. He said that’s something the department talks about a lot in its training sessions with officers.

When it comes to deescalation, Robl said the department trains officers to use speech before getting physical. He said officers are trained in what’s called “verbal judo” to talk agitated or angry people down without reverting to force or violence.

If an officer does end up using force on a suspect or whatever person they are interacting with, Robl said de-escalation still plays a part.

“Also part of de-escalation is knowing when you’ve gained control of this person of this situation, OK, it’s time to ramp it down,” he said.

Officers are trained to de-escalate the force they are using once a situation is under control and not to use undue force on a person who is already detained.

One protest participant, Summer McGuire, a recent Homer High School graduate, brought up the eight policy changes suggested by Campaign Zero, an organization dedicated to eliminating police brutality. The eight suggestions range from accountability measures like the use of body cameras for police, to intervention strategies like limiting use of force and ending the practice of police being allowed to shoot at moving vehicles.

Robl addressed some of these policy suggestions. The Homer Police Department did away with the chokehold, a controversial use of police force, sometime in the 1980s, Robl recalls. The department also has a policy that officers are not to engage in high-speed vehicle pursuits for non-felony incidents.

Officer training

Robl provided the Homer News with two documents breaking down the different types of officer training and the number of training hours for 2018 and 2019. Annual trainings or special conferences or classes are documented as training hours so that officers continue to meet state certification standards, Robl said, but many less formal trainings in the form of monthly staff meetings at the police station are not kept on file in an official format.

As a general policy, Robl said he likes to have officers review the department’s use-of-force policy at least once a year.

In the training documents Robl provided, there’s a training category he said is sometimes referred to as defensive tactics and other times referred to as GST (Gracie Survival Tactics).

“We spend a lot of time on this training,” he said.

This is training that gives officers physical tools to subdue or control people they interact with when things escalate, with the goal being to not hurt them in the process. Robl described them as almost modified wrestling moves.

The 2019 training documentation Robl provided showed a combined 11 officers, plus an unidentified number of jailers, completed 27 hours of GST or defensive tactics training that year.

The defensive holds taught during this training are the kinds of things that, when used, will trigger a use-of-force form, Robl said.

Also in 2019, the 11 officers and the jailers completed at least 60 hours of shooting practice at the range the department uses. In some cases in the document, the range training was listed but without the number of hours attached.

Robl said that whenever officers are trained in shooting at the range, the use-of-force policy is revisited again along with the conversation on escalation and de-escalation.

The 2019 training document shows a combined 11 hours spent on use-of-force training for the officers — that is, nine officers completed one hour each, one officer completed two hours and one officer did not have that training documented for 2019. The document shows officers and jailers spent a combined 15 hours training on trauma informed interviews. Robl said these are skills officers use when talking and interacting with people who have experienced trauma in their lives.

“We recognize what trauma has done to a victim or witness or suspect, and you recognize the effects that the trauma has when you’re talking to that person,” he said.

On the training document, the trauma-informed interview hours are listed together with Taser recertification.

The documentation Robl provided also shows hours of training dedicated to active shooter situations, CPR and other first aid certifications, traffic safety, special courses for leadership roles, and ALICE training — Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate — which is active shooter training for schools. One officer completed 80 hours of training in 2019 in homicide investigation, while another took a four-day defensive handgun certification course. Another training entry is listed as eight hours for evidence management for supervisors, and Lt. Browning is shown to have completed a 24-hour certification in ethics, integrity and procedural justice in 2019.

Beyond the documented training, Robl said the department engages in less formal training sessions during monthly meetings. He and the lieutenant officer meet with patrol officers every month, or nearly every month, and go over a different training or discussion topic. The topics vary widely, Robl said, from domestic violence, to how to handle minors, to revisiting specific department policies.

Jailers, for example, get training in suicide awareness and prevention. Officers have had training on mental illness and specifically on interacting with people living with autism, Robl said.

He said the department regularly brings in guest speakers to educate officers in whatever topic has been set that month.

The documentation Robl provided does not show any officially recorded training having to do with racial bias or cultural sensitivity. Asked whether the department has done these kinds of training in the less formal setting in recent years, Robl said it hasn’t been a major focus.

“We talk about it from time to time, but I think it’s something we should be spending more time on,” he said.

Officers do get cultural training through the Public Safety Training Academy offered by the Alaska Department of Public Safety, Robl said, but it’s not something the Homer department has offered recently in an official capacity.

“I think it’s clear given the national events lately that we need to reinforce that training,” Robl said.

Moving forward

At WKFL Park last Thursday, Robl said he thinks Floyd’s death and the resulting conversations about police in the United States “stands a chance of reshaping some of the future at least of policing in America, and I hope it does.”

Asked why this is a conversation happening in Homer, a small Alaska town, Robl’s answer was simple.

“You know, the last I checked, Alaska’s still part of America,” he said.

At the protest last Thursday, Marshall-Allen said she appreciated the contribution of Robl, Kirko and Castner, but that she doesn’t want it to stop there in the park. Tackling racial injustice, even in a small, predominantly white town, is about longevity of conversation, she said.

“It’s about making sure that the voices at the table equally represent the demographic that you’re protecting,” she said.

When it comes to the training the police department does, Marshall-Allen pushed for more transparency. She’d like confirmation about how often things like bystander and implicit bias training are being offered.

There are a lot of techniques officers should have in their toolbox to protect their communities with a lens of equity, Marshall-Allen said

“That’s my biggest push, is what lens of equity are we applying to policies?” she said.

How can the Homer community help support its police force while broadening the lens of equity being used there? Marshall-Allen asked. She said it would be helpful for the community to have input, or at least more information, about local police policy and how it’s formed — something like an annual policy meeting where communities members could give feedback.

“I don’t know what that needs to look like,” Marshall-Allen said. “… If you want your community members to not just blindly accept your leadership, but be involved in that leadership, involve them in the conversation.”

Reach Megan Pacer at mpacer@homernews.com.

A group of locals protest at Wisdom, Knowledge, Faith and Love Park on Thursday, June 4, 2020 in Homer, Alaska. A local teacher organized a full week of daily protests supporting the Black Lives Matter movement at the park. (Photo by Megan Pacer/Homer News)

A group of locals protest at Wisdom, Knowledge, Faith and Love Park on Thursday, June 4, 2020 in Homer, Alaska. A local teacher organized a full week of daily protests supporting the Black Lives Matter movement at the park. (Photo by Megan Pacer/Homer News)

Winter Marshall-Allen (left) speaks with Homer Volunteer Fire Department Chief Mark Kirko during a protest supporting the Black Lives Matter movement Thursday, June 4, 2020 at WKFL Park in Homer, Alaska. (Photo by Megan Pacer/Homer News)

Winter Marshall-Allen (left) speaks with Homer Volunteer Fire Department Chief Mark Kirko during a protest supporting the Black Lives Matter movement Thursday, June 4, 2020 at WKFL Park in Homer, Alaska. (Photo by Megan Pacer/Homer News)

Homer Police Chief Mark Robl speaks to a small crowd of protesters on Thursday, June 4, 2020 in Wisdom, Knowledge, Faith and Love Park in Homer, Alaska. (Photo by Megan Pacer/Homer News)

Homer Police Chief Mark Robl speaks to a small crowd of protesters on Thursday, June 4, 2020 in Wisdom, Knowledge, Faith and Love Park in Homer, Alaska. (Photo by Megan Pacer/Homer News)

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