HOUSTON – Nearly nine months ago, Mayor Sylvester Turner’s task force on policing reform released a list of recommendations to improve police performance in key areas. One of those areas involved training. A short time after those recommendations were released, the Houston Police Department opened the Tilman Fertitta Family Tactical Training Center.
The center opened in November and KPRC 2 Investigates got a rare look at how this high level of training is helping better prepare officers for what they will face on the streets.
“This opened up a whole new world for us,” said HPD Commander, Craig Bellamy.
In what is known as a “tactical village,” police train on everything from active shooters to calls involving those in mental distress. Other officers play the role of criminals or victims, as everyone from cadets to tactical units train on how to handle myriad situations. Bellamy said one of the main goals of the village is “stress inoculation.”
“We go from the mundane to something life-threatening like this,“ said Bellamy. “The goal here is to put them into the unknown, so they think that they’re going to get an A, but they get a C or D.”
Bellamy said training in this near real-world environment helps officers experience the high-stress levels they’ll feel on the streets. Even cadets are put through the first level of active shooter training.
“Unfortunately, a lot of times critical thinking goes out the window, and (officers) make poor decisions because they’re just not used to operating like that,” said Bellamy.
Bellamy said the goal is to help officers retain critical thinking skills while under high levels of stress.
“The more training they have, the better they perform and the safer they’ll perform. It’s better for the citizens, and it’s better for us,” said Bellamy.
A vision realized
According to the Houston Police Foundation, the first vision for this tactical center came 25 years ago, but budget constraints prevented the project from coming to fruition. Houston entrepreneur Tilman Fertitta is chair of the Houston Police Foundation and was instrumental in raising the donations needed to build the facility. Fertitta even put $2.5 million of his own money into the project.
“Our community engagement had to be done differently,” said retired Houston Police chief, Charles McClelland.
McClelland, who is now on the board of the NAACP Houston branch, also pushed the city for years to build this center.
“You’ve got to understand what training is designed to do. Training is designed to change or correct behavior,” said McClelland.
McClelland said classroom lectures and videos aren’t enough to prepare officers for the myriad scenarios they face on the streets. A tactical village on the other hand, “is designed to emulate a more real-world environment.”
“What do you hope the tactical village will accomplish in bettering the training of Houston police officers?” asked KPRC 2 Investigator Robert Arnold.
“I think it’s going to improve their communication skills,” said McClelland. “It will improve the decision-making and thought processes of officers.”
The encounter was eight years ago, but the memories remain vivid for Nicolas Watson.
“I’ve never been the same,” said Watson.
Watson had just arrived home after getting off work when two Houston police officers approached him. It was before dawn and police were looking for a burglary suspect who had broken into a nearby house.
“One approaching me with a gun, with a light, the flashlight on, that’s what scared me,” said Watson.
He said as one officer approached, another circled around his car.
“Any normal person, this your home, I’m like, ‘What’s going on, I live here,’” Watson said.
Watson said he remembers being punched and wrenching his back as officers restrained him. Watson said after being taken to the house where the burglary occurred, officers realized he had nothing to do with the crime and took him home.
Watson then sued the city of Houston over his injuries and the case was settled out of court for $200,000, according to his attorney Randal Kallinen.
“They didn’t even have a description (of the burglar), they just see a black man on the street and they grab him,” said Kallinen.
Watson believes this was a case of officers moving too quickly when searching for a suspect.
“I wouldn’t blame it on a racism issue in that case, it was just the aggression of the police,” said Watson.
In its 2021 budget, HPD outlined plans to increase scenario-based training as a way to help officers experience more of what they will face on the streets. Watson said he hopes it leads to less aggressive encounters.
“You have to have facts first and that starts with good training,” said Watson.
McClelland echoed that sentiment, saying scenario-based training in the tactical center can help officers better deal with people who run the gamut from emotional to violent.
“During my 40 years in law enforcement, very few people comply perfectly,” said McClelland.
In tandem with this type of training, a member of the Mayor’s task force on policing reform is also asking HPD to help its officer do more than just patrol a neighborhood.
“It’s important for them to understand our communities,” said Cesar Espinosa.
Espinosa is head of the immigrant rights organization, FIEL. Espinosa said HPD has made strides in this area, but said understanding a community can help cut down on negative interactions.
“Even though there may be folks with good intentions who have patrolled our communities, they don’t exactly understand how our communities work,” said Espinosa.