By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 2, 2005
In the eyes of Metro police officers, passengers on public buses and trains can be awfully belligerent.
They curse loudly, they consume food and drink, then throw the empty bottles and wrappers at the heads of other passengers. They even swing from the overhead bars. And when police step in, a passerby is likely to harangue the officer for intervening.
A group of 28 Metro police officers attending a mandatory conflict management training session yesterday heartily stepped into playing the roles of abusive passengers they say they confront almost every day. In two of three scenarios, they replicated a near-riot on a pretend bus in a conference room at the Metro administrative building.
“If anything, it’s kind of mild compared to what we’ve heard,” said Mike Pecoraro, a 14-year veteran who acted the part of a passenger ranting with profanity at his pregnant wife as they rode a bus to an appointment to which he evidently did not care to accompany her.
In the skit, Brandon Twentymon, an officer two weeks out of the academy, defused tensions with polite demeanor and language: “Is there anything I could say to convince you to step off this bus?”
Twentymon’s handling of a potentially volatile confrontation is the kind of behavior Metro managers hope to encourage.
Since Feb. 14, Metro police have been attending one-day conflict management seminars led by a Laurel company called RobertPruitt.com. By the end of next week, all of Metro’s approximately 380 officers will have attended one of the 15 classes, for which Metro paid the company $28,641.
The conflict management training is a response to several highly publicized cases last year in which Metro police officers handcuffed and arrested passengers after confrontations over food and cell phone use. A government scientist was arrested after she ate a candy bar in a Metro station. A pregnant woman was arrested after she talked back to an officer who asked her to lower her voice while making a call on a cell phone.
Metro officials invited reporters to attend the final half-hour of a conflict management session. The three role-playing scenarios involved incidents more disruptive than candy or cell phones.
In addition to the abusive, foul-mouthed husband, transit officers created a group of rowdy teenagers and several inebriated men.
Pruitt, a minister’s son who does diversity training for Montgomery County police and is married to a police officer, said he encourages officers to think about how to approach passengers and to ask themselves how important it is to get compliance. One option is to ignore it, he said he told them.
A passenger who leaves a newspaper behind is more likely to respond to a transit officer who says, “I have to ask you, please take your newspaper with you so we can keep the station clean,” Pruitt said with a smile and a pleasant voice.
The less effective alternative, he said, adopting a gruff tone, is to say, “Please take the newspaper, and I don’t want to hear anything more about it from you.”
Pruitt divides people into four personality groups — the controlling lion, the promoting peacock, the analytical owl and the supportive koala bear — and advises police officers to identify their own type, as well as the passenger’s. Pruitt says he is a classic koala.
Metro Transit Police Chief Polly L. Hanson — a lion — said she has already used the techniques she learned in the class. Recently, she recounted, she used eye contact and head movements to get a passenger to put away a beverage he brought aboard. In another incident, she roused a sleeping panhandler and, after he cursed her, she told him she had been concerned that he might be dead.
“He didn’t believe I was talking to him so nicely,” she said. “So he sat up, which was all I wanted.”
Officer William Jones tries to calm an unruly bus “passenger” played by Officer Bridgett Watson. By the end of next week, all of Metro’s officers will have attended a class on how to handle volatile situations.
Robert Pruitt, who conducted the conflict management seminars, speaks to officers during the training exercise at Metro headquarters.