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Youngstown's use-of-force training fosters community dialogue

As a handful of community members and media watched, about 15 officers were instructed on how to handle different situations. The lesson included a review of policies, some real-life use-of-force scenarios and even a test.

YOUNGSTOWN — The city’s annual use-of-force training is usually done behind closed doors.

This year, Youngstown Police Chief Robin Lees invited community members to sit in on the session.

During Tuesday’s session, YPD Capt. Kevin Mercer reviewed scenarios in which the different types of force are appropriate — such as deadly and non-deadly force — and when to use a firearm or electronic stun device.

The backdrop was, of course, the nationwide debate on police brutality, racism and a call for social justice.

“We have a duty as professionals to have that dialogue and have that conversation,” Mercer said. “We should be more direct.”

As a handful of community members, Community Initiative to Reduce Violence Director Guy Burney and media watched, about 15 officers were instructed on how to handle different situations. The lesson included a review of policies, some real-life use-of-force scenarios and even a test.

Youngstown Flea founder Derrick McDowell said he was glad the department opened the training up to the community to have a better understanding of what the training is like. 

“We need to be able to trust those who are meant to protect and serve us regularly, putting themselves through checks and balances to make sure that they best serve this community,” McDowell said. 

Mercer showed clips from the May 25 murder of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis Police officers to discuss what went wrong — and how the tactics used that day violated policies. Mercer said Floyd’s body position on the ground and how the officers held him is not how someone should ever be detained.

Pinning someone by the neck is wrong, Mercer said, noting a person laying on his stomach with his hands behind his back would find it difficult to breathe. Once a person is detained, he should be placed in a police car or in a sitting or standing position near the car. 

Officers are allowed to pin someone only by the legs, a shoulder or underneath an elbow if the use of force is necessary in a situation. 

A 10-question test examined officers on their judgment of scenarios. If an officer does not get a score of 90 percent or above, they fail the test and are removed from road duty. In the past, Mercer said he has sidelined officers who did not pass the test.

The department is planning on expanding use-of-force training in the fall so officers can do practical techniques.

McDowell, who also works for Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past to teach high school students about the civil rights movement, spoke to officers about building relationships with the people in the community. 

McDowell said by doing so, people can understand different perspectives in order to have better conversations.

“Perspective — I think that’s one thing we all need to take away from each moment that we encounter in this life,” McDowell said. “I’ve gained a new perspective for what law enforcement has to deal with.”

Mayor Jamael Tito Brown attended the training. He said it was a critical time in the nation to be open to having these conversations between law enforcement and the community. 

“We need to lead the charge, not just in the city, but the region,” Brown said.



Ellen Wagner

About the Author: Ellen Wagner

Ellen Wagner reports on municipal services and budget cuts in Youngstown. She is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.
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