By Kelsey Watznauer
NORMAL, Ill. — A room full of Bloomington-Normal area police officers, sweating as they caught their breath, sat in a circle and watched an FBI instructor pin the hips and gain control of the legs of an officer playing the role of a suspected suspect.
In a five-day training class held at Heartland Community College this week, about 30 officers became the first in Illinois to be introduced to and trained in these defensive tactics, which focus on ground control and weapon retention, combining wrestling and jiujitsu-style moves .
“This, I thought, would be a good addition to what we’re currently doing,” said Steve Petrilli, chief of the Normal Police Department. During a seminar at FBI headquarters last year, he saw a demo of this training and knew he wanted to bring the free program to his officers if he could.
“It fills in the gaps (in training),” he said. “It teaches officers how to effectively control suspects on the ground who may not be compliant. It teaches a lot of critical skills when it comes to gun storage.”
As part of the FBI Law Enforcement Officer Defensive Tactics Outreach, regular police welcomed officers from the Bloomington Police Department, Illinois State Police and other agencies to participate in the training, which Petrilli said differs from the “pressure point control tactics” that officers have traditionally been trained in. Unlike this ground control training, pressure point control tactics training is limited in its effectiveness when the subject is not standing.
Officers of all ranks—including Petrilli—finish training with the occasional scraped and taped knuckle and probably some soreness, but they also walk away confident in their abilities and new skills.
“My confidence from day one has grown,” said Kyley Hepler, a patrol officer for Normal police, noting that the training has been “extremely beneficial” and could one day mean their life.
In an exercise nicknamed the “shark tank”, officers took turns taking on continuous attacks from other officers, working through fatigue to defend themselves and ensure their “dummy weapons” were not taken during the fight.
“The match we had yesterday showed me what I’m really capable of and just helped the continued growth of confidence,” Hepler said.
Brittany Evans, also a normal patrol officer, said the training has been humbling and eye-opening, especially as one of only two women in the class, but “it’s a nice feeling to know that we can handle ourselves for the six minutes fight (in the shark tank) We are able to keep our weapons covered, keep ourselves safe, as well as the other person fighting with us… I don’t know how long I would have lasted in a fight versus now with the things they have shown us.”
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Sgt. John Fermon was among the BPD officers to attend the training, which he said was valuable since the agencies often work together.
“It’s nice to get law enforcement on the same page so if we have someone fighting with us or resisting, we all know the same things and we all know what we’re doing,” he said, adding that Bloomington is looking also to implement this training.
Lt. Mike Chiesi, of the NPD, said this training fits well with Petrilli’s emphasis on officer well-being as well as building officer confidence.
“Having officers in better shape, better prepared, I think will prevent unnecessary outcomes when it comes to the use of force with the public,” he said. “The officers are more trained and more confident in their abilities, and they’re less likely to use, maybe, tools. They’re able to keep de-escalation down because they’re more confident in their abilities.”
With the repetition of training, officers know that if a situation with a combative or resistant suspect turns physical, “they have the tools and the skills to not only keep themselves safe, but also keep the public safe,” Chiesi said.
Petrilli also said the focus on control in this training lends itself to improving safety and reducing injuries.
“Instead of more officers showing up … and it seems to be a bit of a chaotic situation at times, this training provides more of a system for how we strategically address non-compliant individuals and get them in custody without injury. the suspect and without injury to the officer,” he said.
Often when officers are called to a scene, emotions run high, Chiesi said. “It’s important for officers to come to the scene and show confidence and show ability and be calm — not come in and escalate that situation because they’re untrained or they’re not confident in their abilities.”
Training is an important part of removing the fear of the unknown, the lieutenant added.
“Because you’ve been there, we’ve done it, we understand how to do it. We know we can get out of it,” he said. “I think a lot of the problems nationwide in law enforcement we’ve seen officers were untrained or undertrained and they let fear take over.”
But with this training, “you take the mystery out of what it’s like to be on the ground and defend,” he said.
Petrilli said he believes law enforcement as a profession “needs to do a better job of taking care of our people,” which starts with taking care of their well-being.
“When you’re mentally and physically healthy, you’ll make a better cop.”
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