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Teaching police to holster their emotions

Why We Wrote This

When Washington trains police, it teaches them not to see their role only as “warriors,” but as “guardians.” That's just one change, along with de-escalation training, to help police more safely interact with people exhibiting signs of mental illness. “They’re going into communities, not war zones,” says the director.

Ted S. Warren/AP
Police officer Inci Yarkut (l.) and embedded social worker Kaitlyn Dowd make contact with a homeless man in Everett, Wash., in 2017. The number of unsheltered chronically homeless people with substance abuse and other challenges has risen sharply in the region, as elsewhere. Partnering social workers with police officers is helping the city to deal with the crisis.

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Research suggests that a quarter to half of the people shot and killed by police every year struggle with mental illness. Intensified scrutiny of those shootings has led to the growth of training programs that teach officers methods for defusing encounters with people in the throes of a behavioral health crisis, emphasizing verbal tactics over the use of force. “Policing has to evolve,” says Chuck Wexler of the Police Executive Research Forum, which has developed guidelines for de-escalation training. Common tactics include remaining at a distance from the person in crisis, attempting to persuade instead of demanding compliance, and posing open-ended questions to nurture conversation. “The idea is not to back off a situation, per se, but to slow down the action when it’s appropriate to do so,” says Sue Rahr, who leads the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission. Critics deride de-escalation training as a “hug a thug” model of policing that could cause officers to hesitate in dangerous situations and risk injury or death. But advocates argue that law enforcement needs to adapt to the evolving nature of its mission. “It used to be that you just took a person to jail,” says Craig Dobson, a police lieutenant in Portland, Ore. “Now there’s very much a social work component to it.” Last in a three-part series.

The middle-aged man sat slumped on his living room sofa with a beer bottle in one hand and a 12-inch knife in the other. His roommate had called police fearing that his friend, despondent over his fiancée jilting him, might take his own life.

Officer Mat Kelly and his partner responded to the scene. They moved into the room and stood several feet away from the man to ensure their safety and to signal they wanted only to talk. Rather than yell commands, Mr. Kelly, with a gun and a Taser holstered on either hip, spoke in a low voice and asked about his problems. After the man mentioned the failed engagement, the officer replied less like a cop than a confidant.

“Oh, wow, that’s rough. I know the feeling,” Kelly said. “I once had a girlfriend call me at work and break up with me.”

Kelly went on to share that he recovered from the split and later met the woman he would marry. The exchange of heartbreak tales eased the man’s misery, and as the tension of the moment ebbed, he put down the knife and accepted a ride to meet with a counselor.

At that point, a police instructor halted the training exercise, praising Kelly and his partner for their calm approach to the mock emergency. The scene unfolded not inside a home but in a cinderblock room on the campus of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission in this Seattle suburb. A crisis actor played the part of the troubled man; the officers carried prop weapons.

Despite the simulated setup, Kelly realized the scenario’s real-world relevance. He and two dozen other officers from area police agencies had enrolled in a week-long course to learn methods for defusing encounters with people in the throes of a behavioral health crisis. The training, held last month at the state’s police academy, mirrors programs spreading nationwide amid intensified scrutiny of fatal shootings by police of people with mental illness.

“This is a tough time to be a cop,” says Kelly, an officer in Medina, a posh enclave near Seattle where Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates live. “We deal with the mentally ill all the time, and there’s also a lot of public criticism of us. So any tool that helps us do our job better and prevents these situations from escalating, that’s something you like to have.”

Police shot and killed almost 1,000 people last year, and The Washington Post found that a quarter of the victims had been diagnosed with mental illness. Research suggests that as many as half of those killed by officers every year struggle with mental health problems, and for people with untreated conditions, the risk of death when stopped by law enforcement runs 16 times above that of other citizens.

The figures illuminate the fraught interaction between the mentally ill and police officers, who fill the role of first responders to behavioral health crises, sometimes with tragic results.

The public outcry over police brutality has led more  agencies and states to embrace de-escalation training. Similarly, national law enforcement groups have adopted policies that emphasize verbal tactics over the use of force when officers encounter emotionally disturbed people. The guidelines draw on strategies devised by the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C., that has gained support for its ideas from police chiefs nationwide.

“Policing has to evolve,” says Chuck Wexler, the group’s executive director. “Everything used to be about getting to the call, barking orders, and resolving a situation as quickly as possible without regard for consequences. But if you defuse these situations without force, you’re going to save the lives of civilians and police officers.”

'Communities, not war zones'

A carved wooden sign propped on Sue Rahr’s desk reads, “Bring Back Common Sense.” The words serve as a motto of sorts for Mrs. Rahr, who as executive director of Washington’s training commission since 2012 has shown an unapologetic devotion to reform.

A policing ethos that has prevailed nationwide for decades known as “ask, tell, make” dictates that officers take increasingly aggressive action depending on a civilian’s willingness to obey their authority. Under that protocol, if a person fails to provide a driver’s license when asked, the officer responds with a command. If the person still resists, the officer applies force.

Rahr has sought to replace “ask, tell, make” with a model rooted in listening, empathy, and emotional restraint. The academy’s crisis-intervention training teaches officers to recognize symptoms of mental illness while conditioning them to decelerate their approach to someone in distress. Common tactics involve remaining at a distance to avoid startling or riling the person, attempting to persuade instead of demanding compliance, and posing open-ended questions to nurture conversation.

“The idea is not to back off a situation, per se, but to slow down the action when it’s appropriate to do so,” says Rahr, the former sheriff of King County, which includes Seattle. “Listening to someone for three minutes can seem like an eternity. We want to reinforce the idea that three minutes is not a lot of time, and you can use that time to bring a situation to a peaceful resolution.”

A state law enacted three years ago requires every new police officer and sheriff’s deputy who passes through the training academy – the only one in Washington – to receive eight hours of crisis-intervention instruction. The state’s estimated 10,000 veteran officers and deputies must complete the course by 2021, and the law further urges the academy to offer the week-long de-escalation program to a quarter of the statewide patrol force.

Rahr mandated crisis-intervention training for cadets in 2013, two years before the law passed, and initiated a cultural shift at the academy that, among other changes, dropped the prevalent description of officers as “warriors” in favor of “guardians.” A year later, protests erupted in Ferguson, Mo., after an officer fatally shot Michael Brown, igniting a national debate about police militarization and use of force.

“Part of being a guardian is being a warrior. But we’re not training soldiers,” says Rahr, who belonged to a task force appointed by former President Barack Obama that proposed strategies to improve policing, including mandatory crisis-intervention instruction. “We want individuals who have a variety of skills in dealing with the public. They’re going into communities, not war zones.”

Studies reveal that 1 in 4 people with behavioral health disorders has faced arrest across the country, and law enforcement books some 2 million people with serious mental illness into jail each year. Meanwhile, researchers have found that crisis-intervention training lowers the likelihood that officers will use force against or arrest those with mental illness while improving the odds that police will refer them to behavioral health services.

The Washington academy instills in officers the need to bridle their biases and emotions when confronted by someone who acts irrationally and ignores questions or defies commands. During three decades as a King County sheriff’s deputy, Sam Shirley, who attended last month’s course, has learned the power of patience in cajoling someone in crisis.

“De-escalation helps you get your emotions under control and not just react,” he says. “If a person isn’t a threat to himself or others, if he’s in his house alone, then take the time to build rapport. Think about what other resources or assets you can bring in. Time is your friend.”

In the view of Joe Winters, a lead instructor of the de-escalation course, the program carries the added benefit of reducing public distrust and critical coverage of police. He considers that crucial at a time when video from police bodycams and bystanders’ cell phones lays bare the actions of officers for public dissection.

“The relationship between law enforcement and citizens has been deteriorating,” says Mr. Winters, a crisis negotiator with the King County Sheriff’s Office. “We need a serious upgrade, and part of that is you have to become one with your community. You can’t just sit in your car and assume everyone out there is bad. In many cases, people are dealing with mental illness or an emotional crisis of some kind, and if we want to be good cops, it’s up to us to engage them.”

Teaching empathy

A young man wearing a backpack rocked back and forth in his chair as his unblinking eyes fixed on the table before him. A few feet away, a man with windswept gray hair spit out a half-chewed piece of pizza. Elsewhere in the classroom, a middle-aged woman bent over a walker and shuffled toward her seat as she yelled “Leave me alone!” without provocation.

The trio were among a handful of adults diagnosed with developmental disabilities who visited the academy to eat lunch with the officers attending last month’s course. The program’s instructors invite behavioral health clinicians from a habilitation center south of Seattle to bring in a group of residents for each training class.

The experience gives human shape to the PowerPoint lessons of the course’s classroom training and cultivates awareness that a person with mental illness might need more time to answer a question or appear at once agitated and oblivious.

“Empathy is a skill; it can be taught,” Rahr says. “We absolutely don’t want officers to dehumanize other people, and having the residents come in makes their behavior more familiar and more personal.”

The academy’s training builds on the so-called “Memphis model” of crisis intervention created three decades ago after a police officer there shot and killed a man with a history of mental illness. Yet even with agencies in 35 states adopting de-escalation policies, police officials who advocate the tactics remain in the minority within law enforcement. “There are two things cops hate,” Rahr says. “The way things are, and change.”

Critics deride the training as a “hug a thug” model of policing that could cause officers to hesitate in dangerous situations and risk injury or death. Less than 20 percent of the country’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies require crisis-intervention instruction, and a recent survey found that police departments and academies dedicate an average of 58 hours to firearms training compared with eight hours to de-escalation tactics.

The Salt Lake City Police Department provides crisis-intervention instruction for officers when they join the force. But a series of fatal shootings by police of people with mental illness has provoked demands from activists for the agency to strengthen its training.

Detective Greg Wilking, a department spokesman, regards the criticism as misinformed. “People look for us to slow down the action and avoid using deadly force in all situations, and we want to avoid using deadly force at all costs,” Mr. Wilking says. “The reality is, we don’t always have that time.”  He adds that “de-escalation” has turned into a buzzword disconnected from the perils of policing.

“We think we do de-escalation pretty well, and there’s always room for improvement,” he says. “But sometimes, the best response is showing power and taking control of a situation by putting the cuffs on someone. The problem is, that doesn’t always look good.”

An increase in crisis-intervention training for officers has yielded fewer use of force incidents in several cities, including Portland, Ore. The police department there signed a consent decree with the Department of Justice in 2014 to reform its policies after a string of violent encounters between officers and people with mental health conditions.

Lt. Craig Dobson, who tracks the agency’s use-of-force data, explains that law enforcement needs to adapt to the evolving nature of its mission in an era when officers serve on the mental health front lines.

“Policing isn’t the same as it was 20, 30 years ago,” he says. “It used to be that you just took a person to jail. Now there’s very much a social work component to it. You’re trying to figure out how to get this person help and be a productive member of society.”

At the end of the week-long training at the Washington academy, Shirley, the longtime King County sheriff’s deputy, had filled a notebook with names and phone numbers of agencies and nonprofits that offer a range of social services.

He describes the notebook as essential to his work, perhaps even more vital than his gun and Taser. He has learned from decades of experience that, unlike the weapons, he pulls out the notebook every day on the job.

“I have no other resources to give people except a kind word and a ride,” he says. He pointed to a page covered with his writing. “But if I can get them to people who can help, then that’s a win for everybody.”

Part One: Desperate for officers, a Georgia police chief hits the road

Part Two: One city’s crime-fighting quandary: Where exactly to invest?

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