De-escalation Training and Rural Policing

A distraught woman holds a knife to her chest and threatens suicide because she had a miscarriage. How would you handled this incident? To complicate matters she has barricaded herself in a car with the engine running.

A 25 year old man wigged out on meth swings a large knife wildly screaming at the demons in his head. It is a heavily populated area with scores of people standby recording the incident on cell phones…from a safe distance of course. They see this as their 15 minutes of fame. How would you handle the crisis?

A man holds himself hostage with a knife screaming “kill me.” He is in his own house. A neighbor called in a noise complaint and you are expected to take some kind of action on the noise complaint. What do you do?

A bi-polar and schizophrenic 14 year old having a psychotic episode runs toward a school holding a knife, you are called to handle…what would you do?

These are scenarios that police officers handle daily. The Eureka Police in collaboration with the Humboldt Department of Health and Human Services, the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office, Fortuna PD and Ferndale PD convened a group of police officers and mental health subject matter experts to build training curriculum that may help prevent Officer Involved Shootings (OIS). The training will be given to all EPD officers and others from agencies who choose to send their officers.

So far this year police have had at least 667 fatal police shootings. The Washington Post tracks each shooting they learn of nationwide. https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/national/police-shootings/ Click on the “tap to explore data link” for specific information. Of the 667 shootings 1/3 were people with mental illness; 582 of the 677 cases the person had weapons capable of causing death or serious injury as perceived by the officer.

Here is the reality of officer involved shootings. No cop wants to hurt someone or see his or her picture on the front of USA Today as the most recent OIS. It is hell on them personally, emotionally, and professionally. It puts stress on their families and may even cost them their job. Yet it happens all too often, without warning and when you least expect it. So, how do we reduce the potential for an OIS?

De-escalation training is one key element of reducing OIS’s. Of the 19,000 police agencies in the USA, most are less than 50 officers. In a rural or small police agency you cannot throw 20 officers at a problem. Often there are not 20 officers on duty at one time in the entire county. So, EPD has had to put a little different twist on de-escalation training. We are teaching to deescalate problems with three cops that in a large agency would take 15 officers.   It’s a balance of safety and effectiveness. The goal is to use time, talk and tactics to slow things down and give the person time to come back to reality. Sometimes they don’t.

EPD’s efforts focus on three elements: Mental health communication techniques, emergency negotiations and scene leadership. Students learn that every human life is worth protecting, even the person intent on harming themselves. They learn that when possible their actions should not make a crisis worse…they are empowered in some cases to walk away. They learn that their safety is paramount even when they take calculated risk to save others. Cops must go home at the end of the night.

Let’s be clear, not all OIS’s are preventable, but their numbers can be reduced. In a country where guns are easily accessible, people get obliterated on alcohol and drugs and the state government has chosen to dump the mentally ill onto the street for families to deal with.  When it gets beyond their capability they only have one resource left – a person with a badge. This training will give rural law enforcement, the ones with a badge, additional tools to resolve the crisis without lethal force.

The Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) has put together a very important piece of work on the topic. It can be found at http://www.policeforum.org/assets/reengineeringtraining1.pdf

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