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OUT OF DANGER A new IPMI partnership teaches frontline parking professionals to deescalate conflict and defend themselves if necessary.

Out A new IPMI partnership teaches frontline parking professionals to deescalate conflict and defend themselves if necessary.


By Kim Fernandez


T’S A TOO-FREQUENTLY HEARD SCENARIO: Just doing his or her job, a parking enforcement officer (PEO) is screamed at, threatened, berated, chased down, or, in a worst-case scenario, attacked by an irate driver with a weapon. Nobody likes getting a parking citation, but sometimes people get so angry that the situation gets out of control. Few PEOs are trained to effectively defuse a bad situation, much less defend themselves without making things worse. And as time goes on, the YouTube videos and news reports only grow in number.


of Danger There is effective training out there, including courses offered by IPMI, on conflict management and effective communication that can make a huge difference in a lot of cases. But when things get really bad, when that car owner pulls out fists or a knife or a gun, words might not be enough to get an officer out before something awful happens. That was the situation faced by Richard Dollhopf, manager of parking enforcement for the City of Milwaukee, Wisc. A former police lieutenant, Dollhopf knew well the dangers that could be faced by PEOs; he also knew PEO limitations. “Some of us are from law enforcement and we understand,” he says. “We might have had pepper spray, a taser, a gun—different ways of controlling the situation outside of something verbal. Our parking officers don’t have that. They’re stuck there with what’s on top of their shoulders and they need to use that to be sure they’re safe.” As the saying goes, that’s easier said than done, particularly when an angry, armed person is losing his or her composure. So Dollhopf got in touch with Vistelar, which has partnered with IPMI to offer a unique kind of staff training. And that has changed the way Milwaukee parking officers think, act, and do their jobs.

The Training Vistelar provides conflict resolution training from its Milwaukee base to everyone from flight attendants to hospitality industry professionals to police departments and beyond. “All of our backgrounds are in law enforcement,” says company partner Bill Singleton, also a former cop. “What we teach is very adaptable and transferrable, but the way it’s delivered and who delivers it is very specific.” Vistelar’s training covers the full gamut of conflict resolution—human conflict, crisis intervention, protection, and active shooter—with the goal of minimizing dangerous situations, teaching people how to safely deescalate or escape, and if necessary, how to defend themselves. The training includes a hands-on physical component that most conflict resolution courses can’t include for liability reasons. Dollhopf knew the company from his Milwaukee Police Department career. “We used Vistelar for some of our specialty teams,” he says. “I’d taken the classes and knew it was very good training.” So when he decided his parking staff needed to know how to deal with an increasingly irate response to doing their jobs, he reached out. The response wasn’t exactly what he expected. “They didn’t come out here with their preset PARKING-MOBILITY.ORG / NOVEMBER 2019 / PARKING & MOBILITY 21

"All of our backgrounds are in law enforcement. What we teach is very adaptable and transferrable, but the way it’s delivered and who delivers it is very specific.”

training program,” he says. “They came to the office, interviewed our staff and supervisors, got copies of incident reports from cases where there had been threats to our staff, looked at our safety issues, looked at our vehicles, talked about what equipment we had, and came up with a training program that was completely customized for our staff. They did an amazing amount of legwork to give us that customized program.” Milwaukee’s parking officers got their first dose of training at the end of 2017, continued into 2018, and now all city PEOs receive 16 hours of classes before they hit the streets, with continuing training for all throughout the year.

Lessons Human nature is to go on the defensive when someone angrily accosts us. The first lesson in defusing those situations is to go against that nature. “When someone approaches and they’re angry about getting a citation or having their vehicle towed, how we react to that shouldn’t be in a defensive way,” Dollhopf explains. “We need to explain to them why we do what we do, and some of us really don’t know how to do that properly. We need to explain why we write a citation, how people need to park to avoid the situation, and why they need to do that.” Doing all of that in a non-defensive way, he says, can knock the aggression right out of the situation. “The goal,” he says, “is to change that conversation to the point where the person understands why they need to park legally. Reacting in a productive way can lead to that conversation with a PEO and encourage the person to not park illegally again. And that’s our main goal—to build up compliance.” Doing it calmly and without defense also keeps the PEO safer. Singleton says that’s a key part of nonescalation, or keeping a situation from going bad from the first encounter. “There’s that automatic ramp-up,” he says. “We talk about redirection. How do you redirect someone in a timely fashion to go back

and start over? Part of that is treating people with dignity by starting with respect. What’s your mindset? How do you approach someone?” It’s a learned skill, particularly in a situation where someone starts by yelling or with aggressive posture—or an all-out threat. “We show officers how to approach someone,” Singleton says. “We show them how to have their hands placed, what a universal greeting is. ‘Hi, My name is Bill. I’m a parking ambassador and I see you’re struggling. Is there something I can help you with?’” “That identifies who you are, what your organization is, why you’re there, and asks a relevant question. And then it’s their turn as a citizen to ask you a question.” Another key skill is active listening. That’s listening to understand, not listening to fire back, and it’s a key part of nonescalation or deescalating a situation that’s already going bad. “You’re going to use active listening skills to understand what’s going on and to communicate to the other person that you can solve this problem together,” he says. “If you don’t know how to talk to people or start a conversation that way, we’ll give you all of those methods on a card to jog your memory. This is what you’re going to say and why.” After that, he says, it’s all about practice; after all, this doesn’t come naturally to everyone.


“We teach all of this and then we ask people to handle a situation and they freeze,” he says. “What’s easier than hello? There’s your conversation starter. Now practice that as a parking ambassador. Show you’re prepared, show you’re competent, have some authority, and show you’re a professional. People will view you differently than if you just walk up and say, ‘Here’s your ticket.’” Dollhopf says that part of the training has made a big difference. Not all PEOs come into the job with customer service knowledge, and just knowing how to speak with someone in an unhappy situation can be huge. “Knowing how to explain the situation properly really is making our contacts with citizens better,” he says. “We can’t control how situations end, but we can always control our part of the conversation. We keep it safer, more educational, and positive.”

Vistelar and IPMI “We’ve all heard about serious assaults and even homicides of frontline parking professionals,” says Cindy Campbell, IPMI’s senior training and development specialist, who travels around the country training industry professionals. She learned about Vistelar’s training in Milwaukee and worked with the company on its program for parking officers. “This is not dumbed-down police training,” she says. “It’s specific to us.” “This training gives our people the ability to avoid or escape aggression or violence,” she explains. And that’s why IPMI entered a partnership with Vistelar to offer it to parking professionals in all kinds of organizations. “People are more aggressive than they used to be,” she says. “This is a societal thing—people are just less tolerant.” By combining nonescalation and deescalation tactics with physical techniques for self-defense and escape, she says Vistelar training offers parking professionals the tools they can use to stay safer. For more information on Vistelar training, contact Cindy Campbell, IPMI’s senior training and development specialist, at campbell@parking-mobility.org.

Physical Training Talking in the right way can defuse a lot of bad situations. Sometimes, though, a PEO will find him or herself in a tight spot that words won’t help with. That’s where Vistelar’s physical training comes in. “It’s not crazy physical training,” Singleton says. “It’s low-level physical protection stuff. It’s a mindset. What happens if somebody gets in your face or somebody takes a swing at you?” The goal is two-fold: Defend oneself and get out. “If it gets to the point someone’s attacking you,” Dollhopf says, “our people learn how to deflect the strike and get out of there. The main goal is always to get out of the situation and not stand there and go toe-to-toe with somebody. It’s about preventing yourself from getting hurt. “The training teaches situational awareness,” he continues. “What’s around you? Where are exit routes? It’s all important. We can’t just send our people out there blind.”

His staff was hesitant going in, he says, but now the reaction about the training is, “it’s about time.” “We have a staff of 62 enforcement officers,” he says. “Some didn’t want to do it. Some didn’t think they needed it. But the one officer who was vocal about not wanting the training was the one who told me afterward that it worked.”

Results Dollhopf says threatening or violent incidents against PEOs are down since he started Vistelar training in Milwaukee. “We started doing safety reviews every month, and this was the first month after we started that we had no safety incidents to report,” he says. “We encourage our staff to report these things, take action, get the police involved, and inform the rest of our staff of the situation.” His department has also taken advantage of Vistelar’s trainthe-trainer component to teach onsite staff how to train new employees and offer continuing training on an ongoing basis. “We have in-house trainers here,” he says, and the program is growing. “Parking enforcement is part of the department of public works,” he says. “We realized this training is needed for our sanitation workers, our water meter technicians, our forestry inspectors. Everybody in public services needs some kind of training like this.” ◆ KIM FERNANDEZ is IPMI’s director of publications and editor of Parking & Mobility. She can be reached at fernandez@parking-mobility.org.


Profile for International Parking & Mobility Institute

Out of Danger  

A new IPMI partnership teaches frontline parking professionals to deescalate conflict and defend themselves if necessary. From the November...

Out of Danger  

A new IPMI partnership teaches frontline parking professionals to deescalate conflict and defend themselves if necessary. From the November...