Windham police look inward to address officer wellness and racial policing

Patrolman Chuck Kulig (left) and Patrolman J.D. Novak participate in a Racial Intelligent Training and Education (RITE) training, held by and for the Windham Police Department at the Windham Board of Education building Saturday. Carter Eugene Adams/The Portager
Patrolman Chuck Kulig (left) and Patrolman J.D. Novak participate in a Racial Intelligent Training and Education (RITE) training, held by and for the Windham Police Department at the Windham Board of Education building Saturday. Carter Eugene Adams/The Portager

Racial justice

Windham police look inward to address officer wellness and racial policing

Chief hopes to bring Racial Intelligence Training and Engagement to more public agencies throughout Portage County.

Windham Police Chief Eric Brieding, addressing a classroom full of patrolmen, put it simply: “It’s not the 1970s anymore.”

On Saturday, Breiding and Windham Sgt. Rick Garinger led a class of 10 Windham police officers and three community members, including a retired officer and a trustee from a nearby Portage County township, in Racial Intelligence Training and Engagement (RITE) at the Windham Board of Education building.

Breiding and Garinger shared stories of late-20th century practices, which placed the authority of the officer above all else, including excessive use of force and the systematic beating of suspects. To those who have viewed some of the countless amateur cell phone videos of police violence, the 1970s may appear to be alive and well.

In Windham, their police are trying to change that.

The department sent Breiding and Garinger to Florida earlier this summer to become certified RITE instructors and bring lessons learned back to Portage County. RITE will fill multiple continuing education requirements for the department with the state of Ohio, including 21st century policing, implicit bias and officer wellness training.

The course focused heavily on emotional well-being and reducing toxic stress and behavior in emergency response as a way to create more socially and racially equitable departments.

“It’s more of recognizing the stress that’s involved with the inside part of the job, meaning the workplace, and the home life, and realizing when that affects you while you’re doing your job,” Garinger said. “Most of our stresses come from internal, just because that’s the nature of the beast.”

The department invited The Portager to attend the first few hours of the day-long course, in which officers were given packets full of information and worksheets.

An interesting part of the coursework featured a large poster with a cartoon ladder and a drawing of a police officer. On the ladder were over a dozen rungs, each with a different emotional state. Toward the bottom, hate, and toward the top, love, reminiscent of Tantric Buddhism’s chakras.

Three main components make up the training: emotional intelligence, social intelligence and racial intelligence. As Garinger put it, emotional and social intelligence inform racial intelligence: namely, the degree to which you are affected by bias.

Addressing bias is a critical issue in all fields, from journalism to policing, and the all-white attendees of the training heard multiple lectures on the subject. However, the discussion on bias was not initially treated through a racial lens. Instead of focusing on specific demographics who have been historically targeted by the police, they encouraged each officer to examine their own biases and how to address them logistically and emotionally.

The goal of the course boils down to improving the person to improve the profession.

As much focus as there was on the emotional processing of each officer, there was an equal amount of talk about how each officer’s actions represent not only the department, but police across the country.

When Breiding asked the class how many have been stopped and treated poorly by a police officer, the vast majority raised their hands, some with memories of incidents 30 years ago. When asked how many have been thanked by someone for giving them a ticket, only a few hands went up.

“The difference between a 30-year memory and a thank you comes down to you,” Breiding said. This played into the continuing theme of improving officer empathy, asking attendees to become more self-aware and acknowledge the emotions and people they surround themselves with.

During the discussion of officer bias and conduct, the duty to intervene became a large talking point, with Breiding bringing up the killing of George Floyd. He emphasized that one officer killed Floyd while three others stood and watched. The training materials, as well as the chief and the sergeant, instructed that if an officer’s bias is known, is showing or is an issue, other officers have to intervene to prevent further harm. Again, they said, it’s not the 1970s anymore.

The training resembled group workshops, in which everyone was encouraged to share and participate in discussions. Some were slow to engage on difficult subjects, such as admitting to being stressed on the job. However, many were willing to share the general emotions they feel throughout the day.

Patrolman Chuck Kulig, a Ravenna resident and six-year veteran of the department, attended the training and between modules spoke on the emotional difficulty of the job and self-reflection.

“You’re typically not seeing people at their best, and you’re bringing emotion to a situation with already too much emotion in it,” Kulig said. “It’s hard to be willing to be honest with yourself and acknowledge personal bias. This class is a good first step to understanding what those personal biases are and taking steps to understand and grow.”

Breiding said he hopes to reach more public sector workers in Portage County with this training, offering RITE classes in schools, to first responders and other agencies.

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