Breckenridge officer facilitates ‘21st Century Policing’ forum in D.C.
Shortly after moving from Vail to join the Breckenridge Police Department, officer Nicola Erb headed further east, to Washington, D.C. Erb was selected to serve as a facilitator for the “Rank and File” forum on April 22, guiding a discussion on modern policing solutions with officers from across the nation.
“My job was to guide the conversation to pull out impressions, opinions and concerns officers had,” Erb said. “It was a just a really amazing experience to be united with officers from all over the country.”
The forum was an extension of the President’s Taskforce on 21st Century Policing, created in December 2014, in light of growing unrest and numerous police incidents that year. An 11-member taskforce was formed, including civil rights leaders, commissioners, police chiefs and others, to listen to more than 140 people testify and come up with a plan of action. From that, the taskforce released more than 90 action steps for police departments to implement and six area of focus.
These “pillars” included building trust, defining policy and oversight, using technology, community policing, and officer training, safety and wellness. For example, the report suggests clearly defining policies on the use of force, responding to mass demonstrations and consent before searches. It also suggested officers approach conflict with a “guardian mindset” rather than a “warrior mindset.”
“I was starting to think about retiring, and when this report came out, I decided it wasn’t time to go yet,” Erb said.
Erb started her career in law enforcement after attending school in California, before moving to the mountains for what she calls “resort policing.” Erb has also worked as a consultant, and holds a doctorate in human and organizational development.
During her work in Eagle, she served as a drug recognition expert instructor and was recognized for her work with drug-endangered children.
“It’s just always been important to me to be victim focused, really working with the community,” Erb said.
She was sworn in at the Breckenridge Police Department in late March.
“There’s such positive energy here and people who want to come to work everyday — there are people who come to work an hour and a half early,” she said. “Everyone’s very supportive of each other.”
DEFINING COMMUNITY POLICING
Erb led discussions among a wide range of agencies, including officers from Baltimore, Phoenix, Orange County and Charlotte for the forum.
“It was a pretty high-powered, intense meeting,” she said. “I had moments where I thought, this is funny, I work in a small little town, and these people work in the biggest departments in the country, and we’re doing things the same way. Other times, I couldn’t imagine that.”
For Erb, policing in Breckenridge means having the patience to assist others with the small things, while still keeping the community safe.
“You just can’t be that kind of person that’s not OK stopping to give someone directions,” she laughed.
Working in a resort town, Erb said the combination of vacationers, high altitude and alcohol is the cause of many incidents.
“We have a lot of late night drunken shenanigans, which can sometimes result in domestic situations,” she said. “When people go away on vacation, they wanna go away on vacation from their life and sometimes that means their responsibility.”
Local culture, department initiatives and hiring preferences are just a small piece of the conversation on community policing, with action items ranging from increasing transparency to building trust with the community.
Erb said Breckenridge already has implemented many of the recommended solutions, including creating a citizens advisory committee and using social media, but the process was not an easy one.
“I have a real appreciation for the relationship we have with our community,” she said. “There’s been a lot of legwork here. Chief Holman did substantial work to build community relations, but then Shannon Haynes continued with the same priorities and now we have Dennis who will carry that baton even further.”
To put it in perspective, that work began more than a decade ago, in 2002. Some departments still wince at the idea of having police oversight committees, especially if community relationships are rocky.
“One of our (advisory committee) members said, ‘we’ve had tough times and it’s taken a little while, but look at where we’re at now,’” Erb added.
A few other departments presented ideas Breckenridge may want to implement for future programs. While the department has maintained its DARE and “Coffee with a Cop” programs, Erb said a project in Hawthorne, California stood out, where officers and kids learned to ice skate and play hockey together.
“If you hear an idea, people apply it to their own community and it becomes even better,” Erb said. “You could do it with skiing or snowboarding; any of the wonderful things we have here.”
Breckenridge has implemented crisis intervention training (CIT) across the board, to help officers recognize and respond appropriately to mental health challenges.
“If every officer in U.S. was CIT trained, they would have a lot less use-of-force issues and better relationships with community members in distress,” Erb said.
However, she noted one area of improvement would be to better emphasize mental health resources for the officers themselves.
“It’s a culture in law enforcement to always be strong and not admit when you might need some help,” Erb said. “Most of us who have been in the job for a long time have lost people to suicide or seen friends leave the job due to mental health issues.”
According to the Badge of Life, the suicide rate for law enforcement officers, at about 14 per 100,000 officers, is slightly higher than the general population.
“We do a lot for physical wellness and we’re looking to expand those programs even more,” Erb said. “What can we do to look at and improve mental health wellness for officers?”
Erb is compiling these ideas, and many more, in a report that she will present to the department.
“We are so lucky, because these other departments, the struggles they are dealing with are so immense,” she said. “It is a time to be proud of where I work.”
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