Education, communication: Youngstown captain talks community relations, police trauma

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'I believe the Youngstown Police Department serves as a leadership role in community-police relationships, so we're very fortunate here to have that' Capt. Mercer said

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – Thursday night, an officer in Cleveland was shot and killed and another officer in the Cleveland area took his life.

It’s another blow to the police community, which has been faced with rising tensions across the U.S., as officers are put into tense, and sometimes life-threatening, situations.

But while those tensions are rising elsewhere in cities such as Kenosha, Portland and Minneapolis, Youngstown Captain Kevin Mercer said since taking office, police Chief Robin Lees has stressed the importance of relationship building with the community and even implemented it into training.

“He’s made a very strong demand on training and part of our training, at least half of our training annually, is going toward community training, relationship building within the Youngstown Police Department and with our community,” Captain Mercer said.

He mentioned they have a separate community police unit to bridge the relationships with the public. The Community Initiative to Reduce Violence (CIRV) is also a partnership with law enforcement, social service agencies and the community to reduce gun violence in the city.

“I believe the Youngstown Police Department serves as a leadership role in community-police relationships, so we’re very fortunate here to have that,” Captain Mercer said.

Part of their community relationship building includes educating the public on what they do. Last month, Youngstown police, along with the Campbell Police Department, allowed people to go through police training and make split-second decisions, which you can read about here.

Captain Mercer said relationships between minority communities and police departments are a very serious topic and need attention.

“It’s something that needs addressed, and we need to constantly work on building those relationships, and making sure that we have equal justice and equality for all persons that we serve and protect.”

While their role is to serve and protect others, it doesn’t mean they neglect their own, especially when an officer experiences something traumatic.

Captain Mercer expanded on training mandated by the state regarding trauma experienced by officers from experiences on the job.

“I really spearheaded off of that and specialized in that topic,” Captain Mercer said.

For them, crisis intervention is 40 hours and within that he takes two hours to educate.

“I’ve taught it to some of our state prisons and those officers, and it’s really designed for the officers to reflect and acknowledge what they see,” he said.

Captain Mercer explained that a lot of officers feel guilt, for example, if they can’t save a life.

“Really that’s what we’re called to do,” he said. “No officer wants to take a life, that’s the last thing. We want to save lives.”

So when they can’t save someone, sometimes it weighs on an officer, and unfortunately, sometimes they take their own life.

“We try to give them those tools on how to manage that, how to deal with that stress,” Captain Mercer said. “Encourage them that it’s not weak.”

They aim to educate officers about that stress before it happens so that they recognize it and get help.

“We have an employee-assistant program here that officers are one phone call away from getting a counselor,” he said. “Everything is done in private.”

It’s not only for on-the-job, it’s also for family issues as well.

“I always use the analogy when I’m teaching, think about going on an airplane, and when you’re on an airplane and the oxygen mask drops down, and so the first thing you have to do is put the oxygen mask on yourself because if you’re not right, if you’re not conscious, you can’t help others,” he said.

The same thing applies to law enforcement.

“If you’re not right, if you don’t have things working well at home, and you don’t get help for that how can you help others if you yourself aren’t ready to go?” Captain Mercer said.

He said they don’t judge. What bothers one officer might not bother another; they just want to provide the help so an officer can do their job to the best of their ability.

“You don’t judge, you just listen,” he said. “Then, give them some resources of how to mitigate, whether it’s exercise, whether it’s go golfing, whatever can kind of get you away from the environment for a little while and get your mind right.”

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