Dessie Senegal-Jeffries shot first. No one – least of all Dessie – could believe it.
“It was eye-opening,” said Dessie, a fourth-grade teacher at Hawthorne School. “I can see where you can get caught up in the moment, and before you know it you’ve made a catastrophic mistake.”
Dessie was one of the first people in Beverly Hills to experience a new police simulator as part of the Chief’s Advisory Panel, a group of citizens who act as a community resource for Beverly Hills Police Chief Sandra Spagnoli.
The chief formed the advisory panel in 2018, to serve as a community resource in the formation of strategies, the development of community policing concepts and in increasing public awareness.
Usually it’s the panel that informs the chief about perspectives from the community, but on a recent evening, the diverse panel of 36 community members learned firsthand about the difficulties of police work. By going through the department’s new simulator, the panel gained an appreciation of what it is like to be a police officer making split decisions.
The TI Training Lab simulator consists of 360-degree screens that put participants in the types of real-world scenarios police officers face every day. The department purchased the simulator as a training tool to assist officers with de-escalation and decision making.
During her experience, Dessie said the situation involved a suspect who was not cooperating with police. When Dessie and her “partner,” longtime resident Alma Ordaz, asked the video-projected suspect to show them his hands he refused.
“He said, ‘I work here, I don’t have to,’” Dessie said. “It turned out he had a staple gun. I felt so bad.”
Alma’s brother, who works in law enforcement, and her daughter, who served as a Beverly Hills Explorer, admonished her “not to shoot the wrong person.” But with the first sound of shots fired, Alma said she pulled the trigger, too.
“I thought, ‘Oh, so this is how it happens. It was disturbing,” she said.
Both Alma and Dessie applied to serve on the panel as a way to learn more about local law enforcement and to lend the perspectives of their diverse communities to the chief, who came to Beverly Hills in 2016 after serving as the Police Chief of San Leandro.
“The chief was an outsider from a different community, and one of the downsides of Beverly Hills is, although we’re friendly people, we can be insular,” said Alma, who grew up and raised her children in Beverly Hills. “This has been a good way for the chief to get to know a lot of community members on a personal basis.”
The group consists of 36 community members who live, work or attend school in the city and represent a range of interests and experience. Panelists attend monthly meetings and serve one- or two-year terms.
“When I applied, I didn’t realize we’d get the hands-on experience that we do,” Dessie said. “The chief is right there with us at every meeting to answer questions. Hearing about what is going in the community, like the vandalism at the synagogue gives us another perspective.”
Dessie and Alma pointed out that the panel strongly represents the diversity of races, ages and religious affiliations in the city. The makeup is intentional, Spagnoli said.
“The panel is intended to provide a forum for discussions concerning community concerns, and the goal is to have a broad spectrum of viewpoints represented,” she said.
The panel pulls from diverse backgrounds, including business, education, non-profits, public relations, faith-based community and the city’s student population.
“I have enjoyed getting to personally know the panel members,” Spagnoli said. “The most rewarding thing for me has been the insights and feedback into public safety issues impacting the community and also the state, which have assisted me in creating policing policy that are directed in line with the community we serve.”
For example, when Beverly Hills PD was considering a policy to require all sworn officers to wear body-worn cameras, the chief presented a draft of the new policy to the panelists and gave them opportunity to review, provide input and discussed their concerns from a community perspective.
Panelists said they enjoy being able to share the input of their community with the chief and feel as though the panel keeps a necessary line of dialogue open between law enforcement and civilians.
“We live in a safe community, and we have our law enforcement to thank for that. At the same time, with so much going on in the world, many of us feel more vulnerable,” Alma said. “This panel is infusing the community with knowledge and has empowered each of us to go into our smaller sections of the community with a more complete understanding.”
Sometimes that understanding is a shock to the system. Dessie said the deeper understanding she received in the police simulator will stay with her for some time.
“I mean, I am African-American, I have three African-American daughters, and you hear about officers killing people. But after the simulator I have a much clearer understanding,” Dessie said. “I appreciate law enforcement even more now.”