YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) — Kevin Mercer doesn’t sleep.
The longtime officer and Captain in charge of training for the Youngstown Police Department isn’t up at night rehearsing martial arts moves, a discipline of which he is a devotee.
It’s the things he has seen on the job for over 20 years as a member of the department that keep him up at night.
Mercer told a group of new officers recently sworn in during their training that one of the unpleasant aspects of their career they will have to deal with are things that most people don’t see.
“I don’t like to close my eyes because I don’t want to see any bad s—,” Mercer told the new officers. “It’s some real bad stuff. It will affect you.”
The conversation came during one of those training sessions. WKBN was granted access to the training of this latest class of new recruits, who were sworn in December 17.
The new officers are James Shirlla, Bernard Fronzgalio, Alex Wharry, Deon Gilbert, Dave Garcia, Tyra Grant and Tom Fetherolf.
The seven underwent an intense week-long training period on departmental policies and other issues, such as the use of force, before hitting the streets with their Field Training Officers, or FTOs. Within four months, they will be assigned a beat of their own after they finish their training.
Grant still must complete the police academy before she can go on the road with an FTO.
Lt. Brian Butler, head of the Internal Affairs Division who oversees the training process with Mercer, had one of the department’s counselors meet the new hires as one of their first acts of training.
Butler said he wanted the new officers to meet the counselors on “neutral ground,” so they could get comfortable with them and know they are available if needed.
Butler and Mercer have both been on the department for 20 years. Butler is a Steubenville native who came to Youngstown via the Hubbard Township Police Department. Mercer is a West Virginia native who worked for the Liverpool Township Police Department in Columbiana County before coming to Youngstown. In his own words, he said, “I went from answering maybe two calls a week to over 30 calls a day.”
Butler and Mercer were also members of the department when the last officer to die in the line of duty, Mike Hartzell, was murdered in his cruiser in April of 2003 on Vindicator Square and West Federal Street.
Butler said at the time, there were no services available to officers who were mourning. The tacit understanding was they were to take care of themselves, or, as he said, work out their feelings in a bar.
“Which is what we did,” Butler said. “Nothing was available.”
One thing that was available back then, though, and still is, are fellow officers. Mercer said he is always willing to listen to other officers because he has seen just about everything.
“I’m always available,” Mercer said.
Now, if he knows the officers have been to a bad scene, Butler said he will email them immediately to let them know there is counseling available if they need someone to talk to.
Mercer said he can lean on people like Butler if he needs to because he knows Butler, who has been on some bad scenes himself, will not judge him or the way he reacts.
Butler told the new officers of a call he went on early in his career, when an infant was murdered in a drive-by shooting. Butler said the scene was very emotional and several officers and paramedics were crying.
Butler said even though he was upset, he was one of the few people on the scene who was not crying. At one point, he said he even tried to cry but could not. The problem then was compounded when Butler said he was worried about himself because he could not cry.
He told the officers he later realized that people react to things differently and there was nothing wrong because he could not cry.
What makes things worse in those situations is the hopelessness that often creeps in because officers can’t do anything, Mercer said. Mercer said one of the reasons people become police officers is to help others, and when there is nothing they can do to help someone at a scene, that makes them feel bad.
“That’s what you signed up for, to help people,” Mercer said.