Harrisonburg police train for unruly crowds

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HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) — In the months following the deadly "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville last year, keeping the public safe in high-risk situations has been a top priority for local law enforcement.

“I think the thing we took away from that is bad things could happen close to home,” said Cpl. Scott Drugo, of the Harrisonburg Police Department.

When urgent situations happen, a designated team of law enforcement is called to the scene to maintain the peace and deescalate the situation. In Harrisonburg, officers are preparing just in case they are needed here at home, or in neighboring areas, through its Civil Disturbance Unit, or CDU.

On a recent Friday afternoon, leaders with the Friendly City police force gathered with new and experienced officers to review protocols and learn techniques in the event the CDU is deployed to a scene.

Through time in the classroom and out in the field, the officers are met with real-life scenarios.

“You got to think that it’s real,” said Drugo. “That way, you’re more prepared it if happens if it’s really real.”

The CDU team is designed to disperse a crowd, prevent entry in an area, apprehend an individual, rescue those in need or move an important person through a crowd. The goal of the training is to build confidence in team members to make each event a safe success.

In one training situation, officers are huddled together with shields entering a home where they are met with projectiles being thrown at them from an unruly person on a roof. Inside, somebody is in need of being rescued. It’s the goal of the officers to safely enter the home, using commands to communicate with each other and to have one another’s back, with the mission to rescue the person inside.

However, before the shields come out and the CDU force gets moving, the goal is to deescalate the high-pressure situation. Ultimately, it’s the squad’s last resort to dispatch the CDU.

“We try to handle everything at the lowest level and work with the folks before we break out equipment like this,” said Drugo.

Each officer is equipped with safety gear and body armor, like vests and knee pads, helmets, a shield and a gas mask.

The events last August in Charlottesville were a “wake up call for the nation,” according to Drugo. That’s why every officer on the force is getting training on such protocols, so everybody is familiar with what happens.

“We get together and we do some lessons learned as well,” said Drugo. “So we follow a lot of that stuff from Charlottesville and what they learned and find out what we can do to improve here in Harrisonburg.”

Hunter McKenzie was among the Harrisonburg officers recently attending the 8-hour training course.

“I think just being being prepared with Harrisonburg growing like it is and the college and the students with the parties and things like that, you need to know what might come up, like the 2010 SpringFest that got out of hand,” explained McKenzie.

There were 8,000 people out during the event in 2010 that gained national attention. Police were shooting tear gas grenades, using pepper spray and rubber bullets. More than two dozen people had to be treated at Rockingham Memorial Hospital after crowds became unruly and out of hand. Several arrests were made.

While Drugo does not expect a situation similar to arise in the Friendly City anytime soon, being prepared is at the front of his mind.

Through trainings, officers use experiences like Charlottesville and the SpringFest riots to prepare not only physically, but emotionally, too, under very high-pressure situations.

“I think the police department is prepared,” said Drugo. “We plan for the worst and hope for the best. Hopefully we don’t have to deploy, but if we do, we are more than prepared and we focus on helping some other jurisdictions as well."

It’s a training exercise, McKenzie said, that will benefit him and the community.

“I think that it’s definitely realistic training,” McKenzie said. “So, I mean, if we’d have to go out there right now and handle a CDU type of situation, I think we’d all be prepared more.”

From proper training performances, Drugo said it can reveal problems or issues the officers can work together to fix before actual problems happen.