FILE - Police squad car, patrol car

(The Center Square) – The Des Moines City Council gave final approval to a range of police funding initiatives, including money for specialized training to help officers defuse tense situations.

The decision did not come without controversy at the meeting Monday as four complainants at the meeting refused to be civil and were arrested, as reported by the Des Moines Register.

The individuals wanted to make public comments on police issues that have been widely discussed in Iowa ever since the George Floyd wrongful death and subsequent protests last summer. A motion to allow 30 minutes of open comments was nixed by the council, 4-2.

The $1.5 million police funding for the state’s largest police contingent of 362 officers includes $148,000 of de-escalation training for every member of the force. Those seminars to help the police undercut potential violence comes in the wake of legislative passage of “Back the Blue” laws.  

That legislation, signed on June 17 by Gov. Kim Reynolds, extends the legal reach for police to deal with protests that turn violent. The law also provides more protection from lawsuits for police officers.

Sgt. Paul Parizek, Des Moines Police public information officer, described the attitude of law enforcement toward the new rules.

“We appreciate the support whenever we get it.”

That’s especially true, Parizek told The Center Square, “when it comes from your elected legislators who speak for the people. Those are powerful voices.”

Some legislators, activists, and civil rights groups objected to the laws as racist, a common accusation in the aftermath of the national discussion of police methods. Rep. Phyllis Thede, D-Bettendorf, with the state’s Black Caucus, told the Des Moines Register that the new legislation "sends a terrible, terrible message."

Related to the national discussion, a June 2020 city law mandated the training. Originally the police department was to run the training sessions with its own officers. However one of the officers on the training team had been involved in a controversial arrest incident that tainted public perceptions.

After resulting complaints, the Council announced on May 24 that a nonprofit police training firm would run the sessions. Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) will provide that training in August, September, and October so that all officers can participate.

According to PERF’s website, the de-escalation training focuses on how officers can best evaluate crisis situations, communicate effectively in intervening, and employ a variety of proven tactics such as officer positioning.

Parizek explains that the training incorporates a day-and-a-half of instruction with a half day of practical scenarios. But he adds that various forms of de-escalation have been employed for decades in Des Moines — just under different names.

And because such training begins from day one with the state’s police academy and continues throughout an officer’s tenure, the upcoming training serves as “a refresher course.”

PERF has recently contracted with New York City to provide the same training for the Big Apple’s 35,000 officers. Studies of the training show results in reduced violence and harm for both officers and citizens.

A University of Cincinnati study of the Louisville, Kentucky, de-escalation program found about a one-third reduction in three major categories: use-of-force outcomes and, more importantly, injuries to citizens and officers.

In a recent story, the Washington Post quotes New York Emergency Services Unit Director Sgt. John Flynn, who has been using deflationary techniques for years.

“We’re creating more options for responding officers. That’s really what this is about, taking these same techniques we’ve been using and giving them to the patrol officers,” Flynn said.

Parizek says those techniques, long-used locally, were employed recently by the department. A “lady in crisis” entered the emergency waiting room at a local hospital. She threated to kill everyone in the room with scissors and eventually did stab a police officer.

His vest protected him, he remained calm, and the woman retreated outside into the parking lot where she had the scissors put to her own neck. One of the officers in the law enforcement perimeter quickly tased the woman to keep her from self-harm.

She was escorted safely back in to receive treatment for her original medical issues. Parizek says, “Everybody’s alive to tell the story. Nobody got hurt.”

Parizek says the department seeks to be flexible and not locked into tools that do not work. He recalls the wisdom his police officer dad used to share, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything you see is a nail.”

Meanwhile, the public wants to know how soon results from the upcoming training will kick in. Parizek has a simple answer, “Tomorrow morning. Community policing at the most fundamental level is listening and having your finger on the pulse of situations.”