Cody Police have been actively trying to reach out to the community in an effort to see what it can improve, and or, refocus its efforts on. A recent survey showed residents value de-escalation training as the highest priority for officers to receive education on.
“To take a situation, identify people in crisis, and de-escalate, rather than immediately taking action, use of force,” Cody Police Chief Chuck Baker said. “Identifying people in crisis and the skill to de-escalate people that are in crisis, the ability to respond to people that armed with a weapon other than a firearm, and de-escalate those situations to a point where we’re not on the national news.”
Baker said an important piece to this effort is ingraining empathy and understanding in officers while in training. He said he wants every interaction between his staff and the public to be purposeful
“It’s not about giving a citation, it’s about changing behavior,” he said during the Faith & Blue forum at Trinity Lutheran Church on Oct. 25 to discuss the results of the survey and other issues.
A recent New York Times investigation found in the past five years, police officers have killed more than 400 drivers or passengers who were not wielding a gun or a knife, or under pursuit for a violent crime.
Cody Police Lt. Jason Stafford said today’s officers are leaned on to be a “jack-of-all-trades,” when it comes to their expertise, and already perform “a lot”of de-escalation training. He said they also receive field sobriety training that helps them differentiate intoxication from mental health illnesses.
In order to lighten the burden on officers, Baker said in the future the department would also like to utilize mental health professionals for certain crisis situations.
These skills directly connect with another topic that was an issue of importance addressed in the survey -- officer well-being.
Baker cited studies that show police officers are four times more likely to commit suicide than the national average.
“My officers have to go home whole every night,” he said.
This September, Casper Police Lt. Daniel Dundas died by suicide. He had been involved in a shooting a few years ago and Casper police said in a press release he had suffered “several traumatic events in his career, all of which, individually and collectively, adversely impacted him in a multitude of ways.”
The purpose of the forum, attended by around 30 people, was to build relationships and understanding between law enforcement officers and the public. Baker, Stafford and Park County Attorney Bryan Skoric represented law enforcement at the meeting.
“Our organization is not broken, but these conversations in the community ... help guide our philosophy,” Baker said. “The Cody Police Department has to be in line with the community expectations.”
Baker said these communications will shape the future of policing in Cody.
“We’re not talking about the national narrative, we’re talking about Cody, Wyoming,” he said. “We’re really focusing on how we do things versus what we do.”
Seventy percent of respondents said there is equal or more crime in Cody than compared to two years ago. Baker said there has been an increase drug addiction and the presence of opioids, such as fentanyl and heroin, in line with similar national trends.
“Those narratives affect us in Cody,” Skoric said.
Stafford said most local thefts are connected to a desire to get money for drugs.
Stafford noted that there has also been an increase in the number of transients visiting Cody in recent years. Ann Armel, a retired counselor and member of the United Methodist Church, said homelessness can take many forms and is sometimes a hidden statistic due to the many people sleeping on couches.
“Access to services county-wide is an issue,” Armel said. “The culture of poverty is huge in Cody.
“We can talk about all the services Billings has, all the services in Casper. Well, those services aren’t here.”
Stafford said the community needs a few more addiction and mental health facilities. It is not uncommon that a patient taken into custody with mental health issues is kept in a jail or a bed at Cody Regional Health for weeks on end because of backlogs at Wyoming Behavioral Institute or the State Hospital.
“Mental health, it’s a struggle,” Skoric said, describing it as the most “aggravating, frustrating” subject his office deals with. “The state is failing us as far as mental health.
“The amount of money that is wasted in the mental health community is astonishing.”
Skoric said the biggest impact law-enforcement authorities can make is changing the trajectory of someone’s life to positive when they are in their youth. He cited projects like the Wyoming Highway Patrol’s Alive at 25 program and the county’s juvenile diversion program as making a positive difference.
“Sometimes the community, they think the police and my office, we don’t have sympathy for the defendants we’re dealing with and we’re just handing down the law,” Skoric said. “That’s just not the case.”
He said he often takes into consideration information about a suspect’s background and other factors to render appropriate responses and punishments.
“If you inject meth for a week straight, you’ll be an addict just like them,” Skoric said.
Juby’s Mobile Home Park, a predominantly lower-income residential area in central Cody, was a frequent topic of conversation during the forum, as an example of both progress and room for improvement. Cody Police Officer John Harris called the amount of progress he has seen here over the past five years “astounding.”
“It is a beautiful, vibrant community with people that are in poverty,” said Kate Murphy, a retired public health nurse.
Brian Andrews, executive director of Jubilee Inner-Town Ministries, a worship organization for Juby’s, said his constituents have had a wide spectrum of experiences with police.
“We have people who have been involved in addiction, we have people who have been involved with domestic violence,” he said.
Andrews said his work has taught him that not everyone in jail is a “bad person,” and that humans are much more complex.
“There’s a different side to that and there’s a whole story,” he said. “I love when officers are able to see that as well.”
A playground was recently installed at Juby’s, with support from a number of local churches.
Stafford commended the relationship between local faith organizations and police. He said these institutions have helped foster some “turnarounds that are unbelievable.”
Baker said he has tried very hard to keep correct quotas of officers in relation to the crime and population growth in Cody.
“It gets more and more difficult as time goes along, particular with the anti-police sentiment that is occurring at the national level,” he said.