Millions in federal grants help local police and first responders boost training, buy gear

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The Treasure Coast Public Safety Training Complex at Indian River State College in Fort Pierce is known as one of the “most comprehensive” and “technologically advanced” sites in the country to train law enforcement officers, fire fighters and other emergency first responders.

The 50-acre compound has gained international acclaim for its “proactive approach” to training rookie cadets and seasoned recruits in disaster prevention, along with recovery and relief efforts related to natural and man-made disasters, according to IRSC officials.

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Soon, thanks to a $3 million U.S. Department of Justice grant, a planned expansion will put the training complex on par with other nationally recognized facilities, such as Disaster City at Texas A&M University, in College Station, that attracts professionals worldwide for exercises in building collapses, rubble piles, transportation wreckage, natural disasters and more.

“Law enforcement needs advanced training, the fire service needs advanced training, and there’s nowhere in this area they can go to get this type of advanced training,” said Rod Glover, who joined IRSC in 2021 as an explosives and counter-terrorism expert with 37 years of experience at state and federal agencies, including the FBI and the U.S. State Department.

Rod Glover

Rod Glover

“We want to draw officers from North Florida, from Alabama and Louisiana, just like Texas A&M does,” Glover added.

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The college’s $3 million grant comes from $4.4 billion in awards the DOJ Office of Justice Programs announced in September “to support state and local public safety and community justice activities.”

“This significant investment will go directly to state and local programs that support the victims of crime, support officer safety and wellness, build the public trust in law enforcement essential to public safety, and help make all of our communities safer,” Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said when the grants were announced.

An additional $952,751 in DOJ grants was awarded to several Treasure Coast law enforcement agencies in part to fund cold case DNA testing at the Indian River County Sheriff’s Office; buy Port St. Lucie Police equipment for a new Field Force Operations unit; and supply traffic enforcement tools to Martin County road patrol deputies.

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Joint training, advanced courses, real world scenarios

At IRSC, Glover said the training complex expansion will add multiple advanced training courses, including more confined-space training, trench rescue exercises – with real-world response indoor and outdoor settings – using moveable life-size props designed to mimic industrial, workplace, school emergencies and hazardous material scenarios. A “post-blast” bombing school also will be added.

Treasure Coast Public Safety Training Complex at Indian River State College, in Fort Pierce

Treasure Coast Public Safety Training Complex at Indian River State College, in Fort Pierce

“We can run joint training exercises, where you bring police, fire, EMS, emergency managers, everyone at the same time to train, because that’s real world,” Glover said. “When something happens, you’re all going to be there at one time, and you’d have to know how to work together.”

The project will involve retrofitting some existing buildings and some new construction, Glover said, such as creating a “training village” made of steel shipping containers that can be modified and moved around.

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The expansion is expected to be completed in phases over about 18 months.

Indian River State College Law Enforcement Basic Recruit Training students James Torini (center) and Jamal Polk (right), both of Port St. Lucie, detain a suspect Tyler McNally, of Palm City , during a training exercise on Thursday, March 7, 2024, at the Treasure Coast Public Safety Training Complex in Fort Pierce.

Indian River State College Law Enforcement Basic Recruit Training students James Torini (center) and Jamal Polk (right), both of Port St. Lucie, detain a suspect Tyler McNally, of Palm City , during a training exercise on Thursday, March 7, 2024, at the Treasure Coast Public Safety Training Complex in Fort Pierce.

“We will start with the physical training courses, obstacle course and then move into the (steel) containers and confined space areas,” Glover said.  “As soon as one area is complete, we will open that up. Hopefully within six months, they can start using some of the facilities.”

Federal grants boost community-based efforts

U.S. Attorney Markenzy Lapointe, based in Miami, said the DOJ awarding grants to counties and municipalities means neighborhoods are made safer by local leaders keenly aware of the resources needed.

“The sheriffs, the chief of police, those people are always going to have a better sense of what’s going on,” Lapointe said during a recent interview. “Nothing substitutes having money from the feds to be able to do some things that they ultimately determined to be central to their ability to protect public safety.”

Attorney General Merrick Garland, right, visited the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida in Miami on Oct. 19, 2023. During the visit, Garland held a roundtable meeting with U.S. Attorney Markenzy Lapointe, on left, and several local law enforcement partners.

Attorney General Merrick Garland, right, visited the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida in Miami on Oct. 19, 2023. During the visit, Garland held a roundtable meeting with U.S. Attorney Markenzy Lapointe, on left, and several local law enforcement partners.

Glover, too, said the coming expansion couldn’t happen without federal help.

“This money coming to the local level … where we can put it to use, that’s critical,” he said. “Because if it goes into a federal pot somewhere, we never see it. So, this is perfect for us.”

Property around a training tower used by the St. Lucie County Fire District firefighters will be utilized by Indian River State College at the college’s public safety training complex for their multi-threat/multi-risk training areas as part of their expansion plans.

Property around a training tower used by the St. Lucie County Fire District firefighters will be utilized by Indian River State College at the college’s public safety training complex for their multi-threat/multi-risk training areas as part of their expansion plans.

Indian River County Sheriff Eric Flowers would likely agree.

His agency was awarded $533,200 to pay for DNA testing to help resolve cold homicide and sexual assault cases in which leads have been exhausted.

Investigators know with DNA testing, it’s possible to give a name back to an unidentified murder victim.

That’s what Flowers did March 12 when he announced the identity of a “Jane Doe” woman found fatally shot nearly 42 years ago.

Evelyn Lois Horne Townsend, who was 43 when she died, was discovered Sept. 1, 1982, in a watery ditch along State Road 60, about 6 miles west of Interstate 95.

Sheriff Eric Flowers holds a news conference announcing a solved 1982 cold case involving the death of now identified Evelyn Lois Horne Townsend, Tuesday, March 12, 2024, at the Indian River County Sheriff’s Office.

Sheriff Eric Flowers holds a news conference announcing a solved 1982 cold case involving the death of now identified Evelyn Lois Horne Townsend, Tuesday, March 12, 2024, at the Indian River County Sheriff’s Office.

Her then-unidentified body was exhumed in 2016 from Winter Beach Cemetery for evaluation by forensic scientists, including DNA testing.

“This is our biggest win to date,” Flowers said, standing with Townsend’s daughter and brother at a press conference. “We’re happy today to really have changed some lives.”

The agency has 32 cold case homicides dating to 1968, and 120 cold case sexual assaults that occurred between 2013 and 2023, a grant application shows.

At the 19th Judicial Circuit Medical Examiner’s Office in Fort Pierce, new Motorola radios, iPads for investigators, a copy machine, and a vehicle to respond to the scene of a death are among resourced being purchased with a $66,458 grant, according to operations manager Kim Loucks.

“With increases in cost, as far as just running the office and services that we use … everything’s steadily increasing every budget year,” Loucks said. “We’ve got to increase the budgets and we need these funds to keep accreditation, which is something that we worked very, very hard for.”

The Fort Pierce Police and St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office received three additional grants totaling $300,192 of which $250,000 was awarded to the Indian River Crime Laboratory for “DNA capacity enhancement for backlog reduction.”

Crowd control and traffic enforcement

The Port St. Lucie Police Department is using a $23,850 DOJ grant to outfit a new Field Force Operations unit to avoid dipping into the agency’s taxpayer-funded budget, Assistant Chief Leo Niemczyk said.

Launched on Jan. 24, he said a new Field Force team of 12 officers are receiving advanced training to respond to situations of urban unrest, including riots, or “wherever crowd control is required.”

“Say a protest that has gotten out of control needs to be moved, addressed or relocated, the Field Force unit will be able to handle that carefully and strategically, while minimizing risks to both residents and the officers,” Niemczyk said.

Purchased items include ballistic helmets, face shields, communication devices, headsets, and elbow, shin and thigh pads for officers.

And with IRSC’s training complex expansion, Niemczyk said their officers will get hands-on specialized training without having to travel.

Indian River State College Fire Academy cadet Dakota Ryder, 19, of Port St. Lucie, fires a blast of water at a target while being timed by instructor David Layman during a training exercise on Thursday, March 7, 2024, at the Treasure Coast Public Safety Training Complex in Fort Pierce.

Indian River State College Fire Academy cadet Dakota Ryder, 19, of Port St. Lucie, fires a blast of water at a target while being timed by instructor David Layman during a training exercise on Thursday, March 7, 2024, at the Treasure Coast Public Safety Training Complex in Fort Pierce.

“In establishing this team, we had to send officers and bosses to New York City to train with the NYPD in field force,” he said. “It certainly would have been a lot easier if we had that resource available to us locally.”

At the Martin County Sheriff’s Office, their $29,051 federal grant is being spent to reinforce their traffic enforcement unit, according to Chief Deputy John Budensiek, who said traffic and road congestion is a “No. 1 complaint” with residents.

“And with those complaints,” he added, “we’re not in all places at all times.”

To better target their enforcement efforts, sheriff’s officials are buying radar collection units – speed limit signs that can be hung on a pole to monitor traffic and collect data. At around $3,000 each, the signs track the number of vehicles on the road, time of day and speeds traveled.

“If we get a complaint in a specific neighborhood, the sign has a radar in it and as you’re coming up, it shows if you’re going too fast,” Budensiek said.  “They warn people to slow down and shows their speed.”

The agency will also replace outdated radar units, both hand-held and mounted inside road patrol vehicles.

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Melissa E. Holsman is the legal affairs reporter for TCPalm and Treasure Coast Newspapers and is writer and co-host of “Uncertain Terms,” a true-crime podcast. Reach her at  melissa.holsman@tcpalm.com. If you are a subscriber, thank you. If not, become a subscriber to get the latest local news on the Treasure Coast.

This article originally appeared on Treasure Coast Newspapers: DOJ awards $4 million to area law enforcement, public safety training



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