Story by Marcus Gale – British Transport Police Branch
Between the 4th and 11th of September 2016 BTP branch member Marcus Gale and Leicestershire branch member Matt Eld visited the Boynton Beach Police Department. This is their story
Matt (a PC from Leicestershire Police who I tutored back in 2012) and I have both been IPA members for a few years. Neither of us had really participated in the IPA beyond reading the newsletters and Police World to this point but noticed the active officer exchange program and decided a week with a US police department would be a fantastic experience so set a rough date for the trip and started looking into options. Boynton Beach stood out with an impressive social media presence and had a variety of units as well as the city being similar in size and policing challenges to the areas we normally worked. As with a lot of people from the UK we had a level of familiarity with Florida so completed the necessary paperwork and submitted to the IPA.
We were quickly contacted by Joe Johnson – the US active officer exchange coordinator and he was able to approach the Boynton Beach Police Department (BBPD) chief who was keen to have us. Over the coming months flights were booked and accommodation found. We were put in touch with Captain John Bonafair as our liaison who was in touch regularly and before we knew it September had come. Bags were packed with plenty of British police paraphernalia to give out and we set out for Florida.
Monday was Labour day, effectively a bank holiday with less staff on as would be the case here. We were picked up in the morning and after picking up a coffee went to the departments training building and range. Under Johns guidance we were introduced to the .45 calibre Glock 13 which was totally alien to us both. I am used to 5.56 rifles from the Army Cadet Force – a handgun of this calibre was like a cannon in your hand in comparison. We went through some general handgun shooting practice in the morning, looking at trigger control and stances before moving onto firing from different positions such as being on your back, firing between your knees and on the side. With handguns being something we have so little experience with in the UK this was a great experience.Aside from time on the range we also had the chance to visit the city control room within a fire station. Unlike the UK there is far more interworking between the fire service (which also absorbs the functions of the ambulance service) and the Police, with one control room handling calls to all. The call handlers and dispatches appeared to have a lot on their plate doing the work of what would to us be three separate agencies. It was interesting to note though that there was no 101 or 111 equivalent making the handling and prioritising of incidents even more of a challenge.
We finished the day with a quick visit to the main police station where we were able to speak briefly to one of the oncoming shifts before going by an incident that was called in as we left and was nearby – a heroin overdose. These are one of the major current issues for BBPD with several a day. Unlike in the UK where we would only attend if there was a fatality or violence they attend every such incident and are equipped with ‘Narcan’ (effectively a heroin antidote epipen type device) which we were able to see deployed first hand. It would be hard to forsee police officers having access to something like this in the UK with all the liability and training issues. Once this was resolved it was back to the hotel then out for the evening where we were able to try some of the local beer – despite preconceptions micro breweries have really taken off in south Florida and the beers on offer were of a really good standard.
The taser course itself was fascinating to compare to what we have to go through in the UK. The instructors course itself is all of 2 days long compared to our 3 day end user course! One of the first comments made by the instructor was “you don’t take a taser to a knife fight” which of course is exactly what we do in the UK. Aside from this was the fact it was considered reasonable to deploy a taser against a person just running away from you, which in the UK would see you quite possibly out of a job.
We left the course for the day come lunch and visited a Columbian restaurant with several other officers, it’s a cuisine we don’t really get a lot of in the UK as well as the positive reception to officers going into a restaurant for lunch on duty in uniform. Once done it was over to the department to meet some more officers and staff as well as Chief Katz who had kindly agreed the whole trip.
We were able to have a good discussion about the comparisons between policing in the US/UK as well as BBPD’s pioneering use of SmartWater, which we have been using with great success for years in the UK. Chief Katz was presented with a custodian helmet, which was immediately tried on and fitted. John then took us to visit what was effectively a Police supermarket nearby. With departments being far smaller than in the UK with massive variations in uniform between them, rather than central stores places like this are common place and stock all manner of uniforms, belt kit, boots and other items. We were treated to one of the new SWAT t-shirts and some other items before heading back to the hotel and finishing the day with a visit to an excellent waterside restaurant/bar and being introduced to Cuban Coffee – basically a very strong sugary expresso.
Whilst the team were setting up we did a Facebook live interview with the BBPD social media manager before doing another for the local news channel. We then moved onto the training, starting with explosive entry. Matt was able to have the opportunity to detonate a charge on the training door which was an incredible sight and a lot different to using an enforcer (although a lot quicker and more effective!)
We then had the chance to throw ‘flashbang’ grenades as a practice before being given Glock’s loaded with ‘Simunition’ (live rounds that fire a blue paint pellet) and completing dark room clearances in the building under the instruction of some of the team. This was then topped off with donning gas masks and having a CS grenade set off! Its been some years since I last came into contact with CS, its not hugely pleasant when that hot and sweaty but I did join the team in removing my mask when still in the building and walking outside.
After a quick change we then had an evening with members of the team visiting a range of local breweries/ bars. It was a great opportunity to have the chance to get to know lots of officers in a more relaxed setting and sample more of the local beer.
After a bit of a later start it was off to the local marina where we were joined by Boynton’s two marine unit officer and headed over to the agencies boat. Boynton provides marine cover to other surrounding agencies as well as holding Customs designation meaning patrols out to the limits of US territorial waters. The marine unit was interestingly the most similar in its style of policing to the UK with the officers having great links to and knowledge of the local community. We were able to see the whole area covered by the unit including a trip out onto the less than millpond like Atlantic as well as having the opportunity to take the controls for a while.
In terms of gun crime, which is of course one of the main differences from the UK, the best way of comparing would be imagining the calls we receive in the UK mentioning a knife having the knife replaced with a firearm. In general it was interesting to see that general traffic stops were relatively low profile compared to how they are portrayed on TV and film, there was a greater level of caution that we would use but it remained broadly similar. The most striking illustration of the firearms threat was the way domestic incidents were approached, getting the persons involved outside and ensuring line of sight was maintained between officers with cover being provided by others. Our approach of taking people into different rooms would be out of the question.
The day started with visiting some of the local training for new officers being carried out both at a local fitness centre and neighbouring departments training building. We had discussed driver training earlier in the week and the US officers were amazed we did ours over several weeks and all on public roads. The US method is to use cones in a car park, with the course lasting a few days – we were able to see the set up for this at the training building. We were also able to watch some self-defence training underway, as a whole it seemed less intense and hands on than in the UK although this is no doubt symptomatic of the lower threshold for Taser use and presence of firearms with associated issues around retention.
I was also able to spend some time with an officer from the field training department, again this showed some interesting similarities and differences. I particularly liked their approach of having two different officers train a new officer whilst in company and formal daily reviews. From meeting a number of young in service officers this system appeared to produce noticeably knowledgeable and confident officers and is certainly more formally structured than the UK.
Our final full day was a chance to experience life away from work in the US. Matt and I went out for a walk in the morning (apparently not the done thing in South Florida judging by the lack of footpaths or anyone else doing the same – possibly due to the heat!) then come the afternoon were picked up and went to a local waterfront bar to watch a college football match.
We stayed out till the early hours, being joined by several off duty officers we had met in the week finishing off at a local Police/military bar which is again something we simply don’t have in the UK.
Boynton Beach Police Department could not have been more accommodating and it was a pleasure to meet so many of their officers and staff.