Vt. Police Academy to ask for comprehensive training review

Published: Dec. 15, 2022 at 6:02 PM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - New leadership at the Vermont Police Academy -- and a larger Criminal Justice Council -- is aimed at hitting the reset button when it comes to training police officers in Vermont, ushering in a new era at the Pittsford academy. Reporter Dom Amato got an exclusive look at some training scenarios and learned about the changes that some say were long overdue.

The Vermont Police Academy has a new executive director. Heather Simons, the first woman to lead the academy, says it’s her goal to increase transparency. And that starts with letting our cameras inside.

A real-life active shooter training scenario was underway during a recent visit to the Pittsford facility. Officials say a new, more immersive training, should be up and running early next year, but that the current version being used since 2015 still fulfills the requirement. It’s just one aspect of training at the academy after hundreds of hours of classroom work.

“We’ve gone from what used to be a very police discipline, almost paramilitary structure, to far less of that, to far more academic intensive,” said Ken Hawkins, the academy’s training director. He says the curriculum -- which started as a three-week course -- is now a four-month overnight program. In just the last few years, he says policing -- and training -- has had to adapt to the times. “Far more de-escalation, far more response to mental health training, all of that. That over time really needed to happen.”

Academy leaders say they’ve put an emphasis on officers communicating with the public, even if it’s something as basic as a traffic stop or a DUI screening. “That they’re able to have one-on-one conversations with people and that they understand what the needs are,” Hawkins said.

It comes as more and more police interactions involve mental health concerns and substance use disorder. But if things take a turn for the worse, officers still go through specific scenarios leading up to deadly force. We were not allowed to get video of that training.

“It’s very difficult to sometimes recognize that de-escalation may not be part of this scenario or may not be a part of a real-life scenario. Action may have to happen prior to words,” Hawkins said.

And if officers feel they are in imminent danger, Hawkins says it’s always shooting to incapacitate and to gain control of the situation. But he says communication, stress management, and crisis training are key to not ending up in that scenario.

“There’s historically been this view of law enforcement as ‘warrior mentality,’ but that’s changing nationally -- and in Vermont -- to more social workers who carry guns and are trained to use them responsibly when necessary,” said former Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell, who now helps oversee the academy as chair of the Vermont Criminal Justice Council. The now 24-member council includes a number of committees to address professional regulation, training, and use of force. The latter came into the national spotlight a few years ago.

The murder of George Floyd and a push to modernize Vermont police were major focuses for lawmakers in 2020. “The way we oversaw Vermont law enforcement was based on a much different era,” said former Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, who helped the legislation on use-of-force and officer accountability to become law. He says while law enforcement policy may have been slow to evolve on how officers handle situations with mental health or addiction, the police community was open to improvements. “We faced a bit of reluctance to move forward and I think some law enforcement officers said, ‘Oh yeah, we do need to modernize, but let us take care of the crafting of those new policies.’”.

Ashe believes the policies have paid off and that the changes were necessary. “It’s trying to take a system that existed for the better part of the 20th century and updating it for the 21st century,” he said.

Looking further into the 21st century, Hawkins and other leaders at the academy say they’re open to suggestions about training or policy. “Be educated about the ask. If you say we’re doing this wrong, great. How are we doing it wrong? Talk to me, tell me, and help me develop a better way to do it,” Hawkins said.

And to get an even better sense of the training curriculum and make sure it’s up to national standards, the academy has asked the Legislature to fund a comprehensive look from outside experts to evaluate its current practices.

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