YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) — It was picture day at the Youngstown Police Department, and the five young men fidgeting with their ties and helping each other pin their badges and pins on their uniforms were akin to a group of students getting ready to have their school photos taken.
The five are part of a class of seven new officers added to the ranks of the police department, which has been short-handed in the Patrol Division for most of the year.
The department allowed WKBN access to the training for the latest group of new officers, a process that really began in October when in-depth background checks were run on all of them.
They were sworn in Dec. 17 and have been attending training sessions in the department’s makeshift training center in the former municipal court facility on the second floor of City Hall.
They will hit the streets for the first time with their Field Training Officers (FTO), a process that will take at least four months, the day after Christmas. The officers will take a turn with an FTO on each shift. After their training in the field is over, they will be assigned a beat of their own.
Most likely, they will be working afternoons or midnights, because beats and shifts are assigned by seniority.
But as they struggle to button the top button of their uniforms or make sure their name tags and badges are just right for their official photo, none of that is on their minds right now.
“I am never wearing a tie again,” jokes Bernard Fronzaglio, a new hire who comes to the department after a part-time stint as an officer in his native Hubbard, where he was a wide receiver, outside linebacker and punter for the Eagles while he was in high school.
It was Fronzaglio, known as “B.J.” to just about everyone else, who was the officer Lt. Brian Butler of the Internal Affairs Division did a background check on in October when Butler allowed a reporter to accompany him to the Hubbard Police Department. That’s where he interviewed Fronzgalio’s supervisors and also visited his apartment building to see what his neighbors had to say about him.
Apparently, it was all good; the department made an officer to Fronzaglio, who accepted.
Fronzaglio said he has always wanted to be a police officer and he decided to apply for Youngstown because he thinks it is the elite.
“It’s the best department in the area,” Fronaglio said.
Of the seven new officers, almost all of them were athletes in high school. Two are U.S. Marine Corps veterans and one served in the U.S. Navy. Two are black, one is Hispanic, one is a woman and three of them are Youngstown natives.
The other officers are:
James Shirlla, 23, a Boardman High School graduate who played lacrosse and ran track for the Spartans. He comes to the department after stints with Braceville and Mill Creek police.
He says he knows it is a cliché but he wants to be a police officer because he wants to help people. He has a strong tie to Youngstown because he was born there, he said.
“I just want to do my part to make it a better place,” Shirlla said.
Alex Wharry, 25, is from New Springfield and worked for Mill Creek and Springfield police before applying for Youngstown. A Marine Corps veteran who played football and basketball for Springfield High School, Wharry was an infantryman who saw duty in nine different countries.
He said that helped him a lot to be a police officer because he was often communicating with people who not only didn’t understand English but were from completely different cultures. He said he wanted to be a police officer in Youngstown because “I want to help people who are truly in need.”
Deon Gilbert, 26, grew up on the South Side and played football and ran track for Youngstown Christian School. Gilbert said he wants to give back to his hometown and also be a good example of a police officer for black youth.
He comes to the department after serving as a part-time officer in Cortland, where his supervisors spoke very highly of him.
“I think we need more people of color to shine a light on the positive of police officers,” Gilbert said. “People of color can see not all cops are bad.”
Dave Garcia, 33, grew up on the East Side and he played football and ran track for Campbell while in high school. He served in the Navy before becoming an officer in Wellsville and Lowellville before joining the Youngstown police.
Garcia said growing up on the East Side helped steer him into police work, because he said he wanted to want to help the people in his neighborhood.
“I just want to be part of the good and not the bad,” Garcia said.
Tyra Grant, 31, is a former basketball standout at Ursuline High who played in college for Penn State and later in the WNBA. Grant passed the Civil Service exam but has not yet received her certification from the Ohio Peace Officers Training Academy.
After she finishes up her initial training, she will attend the academy. When she graduates, she will be paired with a Field Training Officer.
Grant said she wanted to be a police officer because she loves her hometown.
“Youngstown is where my heart is,” Grant said. “It’s what made me, and I always wanted to be someone who gives back to the community.
Thomas Fetherolf, 27, is another Marine veteran from McDonald who just graduated from the police academy. He had to be sworn in separately because he could not be excused from his academy class the day that the other officers were sworn in.
“I wanted to serve in Youngstown because Youngstown is close to home and my family is here,” Fetherolf said.
They are part of a trend at YPD and policing in general in that they are for the most part college graduates who majored in criminal justice and attended the police academy before becoming officers.
In the past, the department was filled with people who had worked other jobs and turned to police work either for a change or as a last resort. One retired detective said he began working at the department because he knew the mills were closing and he would need to find steady work. A longtime patrol officer who recently retired used to fix copiers before he decided to take the Civil Service test for police officers because he wanted a change.
The new hires spent their first day qualifying with their firearms before attending training sessions on writing reports, using Tasers and pepper spray, and other use-of-force techniques.
The new officers also attended a program by Guy Burney, the director of the Community Initiative To Reduce Violence (CIRV), on his “Bridges To Poverty” program. The program helps instruct them on how to interact with people from an urban environment, like Youngstown. It’s especially helpful for officers who came from rural areas who never patrolled a city with a poverty rate of 38.6%, where every 2.7 residents live in poverty.
Butler said the training is key for new officers who come from other communities and backgrounds to understand the urban population they will be dealing with on a daily basis.
“It’s the most important training we have,” Butler said.
A SHOCKING EXPERIENCE
After their firearms qualifications, the new officers’ first day of training involves the exciting topic of… writing reports.
Although a mundane task to some, an initial incident report is very important. If an arrest goes to court, the report most likely will be introduced as evidence. The officer who took the report will then have to testify before a jury, which means he will be subject to cross-examination by a defense lawyer.
Youngstown police Capt. Kevin Mercer tells the officers to make sure they document all events in chronological order and to quote people accurately, even if they hurl profanities at them. He said it is very important that everything is documented accurately so that jurors in a potential trial get a clear picture of what happened.
The next day, officers get some instruction in Tasers, and they are joined by some Mahoning County Sheriff’s Office deputies who also need the training. Lt. William Ross and Officer Mike Bodnar join Mercer in giving the training.
If an unruly person or subject is hit with a Taser, Ross told the class to make sure they give that person a chance to obey before they are hit with a Taser again
“Give him a chance to respond before you pull that trigger again,” Ross said.
Officers were also instructed to look for any signs that a person who is hit with a Taser is having medical problems and should be attended to immediately. He also said officers have to think straight and call for medical help and put out of their mind the fact that someone was fighting with them if they need help.
“Don’t let your emotions get in the way just because he fought you,” Ross said.
Officers also must think tactically before they use a Taser, Bodnar said. He told them to try avoiding using it any place where someone may have a long fall, such as a house with a porch.
And then, a person who is hit with a Taser might still be combative, so it is best to have backup when you try to handcuff them, Mercer said.
“Once the juice goes off, they go live,” Mercer said. “You need to be prepared to get him under control.”
Later in the class, Ross looks for volunteers to get hit with a Taser. The new officers all decline, saying they have been hit before and it was not pleasant.
Three of the deputies taking the class volunteer, however. All three, very well built, muscular men, are hit by the Taser, one at a time.
All three turn into quivering masses of jelly, spewing profanities as they squirm on the floor.
THE FATAL FUNNEL
Before the Taser training, the new hires take part in “The Fatal Funnel,” a training exercise designed to test how they react to a situation in which they have to deal with a person who is behind an open door.
The door is the “funnel,” Bodnar said, and officers have to size up the situation quickly and determine how to deal with the person on the other side of the open doorway.
A vacant office in the municipal court facility is used for the facility. Officer Dave Hilliard plays the part of the person who calls 911 but never says what he needs police for, which is why the call is designated as “unknown trouble.” For every one of the scenarios but one, Hilliard sits behind a table with a knife in front of him. For the other scenario, he hides in a closet.
Fronzaglio enters and is very relaxed, introducing himself as a police officer and asking what the problem is.
“I called you,” Hilliard answers.
Fronzaglio said he understands and also asks Hilliard to keep his hands where he can see them.
“Why do I have to keep my hands up?” Hilliard asks.
“For your safety and mine,” Fronzaglio says. One of the things Fronzaglio does is keep large part of his body behind the doorframe as he talks.
“I found this knife. Do you want it?” Hilliard asks.
The back and forth continues until Hillard yells, “Boom! Boom! Boom!” He had a hidden gun that he pulled and fired at Fronzaglio.
But because of the way Fronzaglio positioned himself at the door, it was possible that he avoided the gunfire, Bodnar said.
Other officers also go through the scenario. All are “shot.” Most of the other officers enter the “funnel,” or the door before they should, putting themselves in a vulnerable situation. When Hilliard tells one officer to put his gun away, the officer actually starts holstering his weapon. He is then shot.
Bodnar critiques each officer individually after their session is completed. The main thing, he tells them, is to take their time. There is no need to rush into anything, especially when there are too many unknowns.
“Time is your friend,” Bodnar tells one of them.
In all of the scenarios, Hilliard turns the tension up a notch each time he is asked to put his hands up or step away from the knife. Bodnar said talking and taking their time is a way for the officers to deescalate the situation. If they talk enough, or use what Bodnar called “verbal judo tricks,” the officers can defuse the situation and take the person into custody or call for medical help, whatever the situation requires.
“You talk them into it,” Bodnar said
NEXT UP: The officers go through Bridges To Poverty training and how to handcuff a suspect. WKBN will have the story on that training next week.