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Local News

Ex-con schools law enforcement on approach

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Dana Gentry, Nevada Current
February 19, 2024

Michael DiVicino grew up despising law enforcement. 

“When I was roughly the age of five or six, I woke up to a commotion in my household. I’m scared. I’m confused. I see the door kicked in, and I see my father being dragged out of the house in handcuffs,” DiVicino said Wednesday to a class of law enforcement officers and hotel security officials learning how to respond to individuals in a crisis. “I later understood it was the FBI. I didn’t have the mental capacity at the time to contemplate that maybe there was some illegal activity going on in the house. It’s easier to blame someone else. Law enforcement became the object of my discontent. Law enforcement became my enemy.”

DiVicino, now 61, cycled in and out of correctional facilities since he was 12 years old.  In 2019, after serving 29 years on multiple life sentences involving the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, he found himself the unlikely recipient of parole.

 Michael DiVicino speaks about crisis intervention. (Photo: Dana Gentry)

“I was scared to death to get out of prison. Institutionalization is a very real thing,” DiVicino told the class. Exacerbated by post-traumatic stress and paranoia wrought from decades of incarceration, his greatest fear upon release was an encounter with the law. “We were basically taught to distrust law enforcement. I’ve been wired this way my whole life.”

“We’ve never really had an opportunity to talk to ex-cons that come out of prison,” Andy DiPalma, a retired Las Vegas Metro cop who now works for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), said in an interview. “We might see them on a call but our defenses are up. Their defenses are up.”

But in a classroom setting, DiVicino and others are “able to feel more comfortable talking about the past, ” DiPalma says of NAMI’s Sharing Your Story with Law Enforcement program, part of a 40-hour training session on crisis intervention. “It’s designed for anyone with a mental health challenge who has had a police contact to come in and talk about how officers can approach them a little bit more safely or find something like common ground.”

Critical Incident Teams (CIT) training, once perceived as a touchy-feely approach to policing, is now mandated by some departments, including Metro, thanks to a 2017 edict from then-Sheriff Joe Lombardo, now governor of Nevada. 

DiPalma, who was a hostage negotiator at Metro, has been CIT certified since 2006 and conducts the training sessions on behalf of NAMI.

“Memphis police started this in the late 80s when they shot and killed an unarmed mentally ill person,” DiPalma says. “CIT is supposed to be on a volunteer basis, which makes absolute sense if you want the people that are most empathetic. However, Metro averages 130 CIT calls a day.” 

A policy called Legal 2000 allows first responders to transfer a person to a mental health facility for 72 hours if they appear to pose a danger to themselves or others. Metro imposes about 30,000 legal holds a year, according to DiPalma. “Nevada is number 51 of all the states when it comes to mental health resources. Our largest mental health facility is the Clark County Detention Center.”

NAMI says some 2,700 communities nationwide have embraced CIT as a means of identifying mental health issues and resources, and reducing arrests. NAMI helps CIT programs expand by making mental health providers, community leaders, and volunteers such as DiVicino available to law enforcement.

Studies indicate CIT improves attitudes and knowledge about mental illness among law enforcement officials. In Memphis, CIT resulted in an 80% decrease in officer injuries. 

In some cities, CIT has helped reduce the amount of time officers spend responding to mental health-related calls, and saved money by diverting individuals, such as the unhoused, from the criminal justice system and into treatment.

‘A very tough job’

DiVicino realized his worst fear – an encounter with police – while riding his bicycle in the wrong direction in Las Vegas shortly after his release from prison. As he turned into his apartment complex, he noticed the hood of a black and white patrol car. The patrol car “swooped around” as he dismounted, DiVicino told the class. “I’m hypervigilant because of the PTSD and the paranoia. The officer jumps out, very pumped up.”  

Shaking and armed with nothing more than a backpack full of food and water and unaware of his offense, DiVicino says he too, was pumped up, but obeyed the command to place his hands on the patrol car as police dispatch informed the officer of DiVicino’s record.

“He draws his gun and goes for his speaker and asks for back up,” DiVicino recalls. “He tells me he’s never met anyone who’s been in a penitentiary as long as me.” 

The incident ended peacefully, DiVicino reported to the class, with police letting him off the hook for riding in the wrong direction in the bike lane. “I can’t have anyone behind me,” he says, chalking it up to decades in prison. “It’s a big problem.”

DiVicino asks the class if anyone would have handled the stop differently. “We’re all profiling, no matter who we are. Is that the way to react to someone who’s been caged for 30 years?” 

Some in the class suggest the officer was heavy-handed, which draws DiPalma into the discussion.

“That is a proper response,” DiPalma says of the officer’s actions. “It’s not skin color. It’s not clothing. He (DiVicino) is a violent felon.” 

DiVicino generally gets good reviews from the class. He’s engaging, informative, and genuine. But he has stumbled. Once, during a discussion of police shootings, he asked the class members not to “shoot first and ask questions later.”

“He got hammered,” DiPalma says of the ensuing exchanges in the class and the critique participants complete following the training. “To cops, that’s like calling an Italian a derogatory term. Or calling a Black person the ‘N’ word. He’s gotten better at it. I use Mike for all my training.”  

“A majority of people I know are the guys that did a lot of time. And I hear all the time ‘I’m not going back to prison,’” DiVicino tells the class, suggesting ex-cons would rather fight to the death than be locked up. “There are a lot of individuals brought up to distrust law enforcement and you guys got a very tough job.”

DiVicino is hoping to spread the word of his unlikely friendship with DiPalma and his newfound respect for authority. He currently speaks to incarcerated youth at Spring Mountain Youth Camp, and he’s hoping to gain permission from the Clark County School District to bring his ‘Letters from Prison’ initiative into schools.  

DiVicino’s second post-release encounter with police came during a traffic stop. When the patrol car behind him “lit up” on a busy street, he pulled into the parking lot of a WalMart. Two officers approached him with their hands on their weapons. They informed him that pulling off the street and into a parking lot suggested he was setting them up for an ambush. 

DiVicino tells the class the incident illustrates the challenges law enforcement faces daily to find the sweet spot between an appropriate response and a safe one. “You never know who you’re going to encounter.”

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This article is republished from Nevada Current under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.