“I have been on cocaine and I’m suicidal,” the woman yelled. “I’m feeling no pain. I’m at the point where I don’t know what to do anymore.”
“Will you let me help you?” Hines asked without raising his voice.
The woman’s volume dropped. She asked why he would want to help.
“I want to help you because I think everybody’s life is valuable,” Hines said.
Five minutes after Hines arrived, the woman tossed her knife to the floor. Hines took her for mental health treatment. No one was arrested or hurt.
For many years, in these situations, police have been trained to meet force with more force, drawing their weapon and ordering the subject to drop that knife.
Now, in training academies around the country, officers are watching the video of Hines and others performing de-escalation. The training teaches police to create space, slow things down, ask open-ended questions and hold off reaching for their guns to avoid ramping up confrontation.
After frustrations over police violence ignited protests and calls for reform nationwide this year, de-escalation is gaining new prominence among law enforcement and winning over once-skeptical cops who thought such training would get them killed.
In the Bay Area, the San Francisco Police Department created a training program that resulted in a 24 percent decrease in use of force in 2019 compared with 2018. The California legislature last year passed a law, signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), requiring de-escalation training for police, which departments in Berkeley and San Diego have already begun implementing. And a recent study shows that one form of de-escalation training run by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) dramatically cut use-of-force incidents and injuries to citizens and officers for one big-city department.
“When we first began this whole journey,” PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler said, “the conventional wisdom was: ‘Cops have to make split-second decisions — you’re going to get officers hurt.’ Now here we are in 2020 and you have a study that says not only was there a decline in use of force and citizen injury, but the biggest decline is in officer injuries.”
Every year since 2015, police officers in the United States have killed about 1,000 people, according to a database compiled by The Washington Post. About 60 percent of those cases involved a subject with a gun and thus weren’t candidates for de-escalation, Wexler said. PERF’s program addresses about 200 of the remaining cases, in which people are in mental crisis and often intent on committing “suicide by cop” — cases Wexler calls “lawful but awful.”
One such case appears to have occurred in October, when Philadelphia police shot and killed a man approaching them with a knife. The shooting sparked violent confrontations in the city, with at least one council member criticizing officers and saying they should have employed de-escalation.
'Drop the knife!'
At a recent training session in Montgomery County, Md., PERF instructor Tom Wilson showed Montgomery police trainers how to teach de-escalation to officers and recruits. The session mixed theory with 17 real-world case studies — including Hines’s case — presented through videos captured by officers’ body-worn cameras, citizen cellphones and security cameras.
In one example, Wilson queued up footage of a Baltimore police officer walking into a rowhouse and facing a woman holding a knife in her kitchen. “It’s a good thing for your cops to see right upfront: We don’t have to rush,” he said.
The Baltimore officer spoke softly, his hands out, no gun drawn, and edged within about a dozen feet of the woman.
“I don’t want to be here no more!” the woman yelled.
“You and me, we’ll just talk, okay?” the officer responded.
Wilson paused the video.
“The tone — good,” commented Lt. Dan Friz, an academy supervisor.
The video ended spectacularly well, with the woman surrendering her knife and even getting a small hug from the officer. The example for some appeared too rosy to present to street cops.
“Would we be showing this video if she turned and assaulted him?” one asked. “I don’t think we can sell them if she did.”
“You could,” said Wilson, noting that the Baltimore officer had kept enough distance to allow him to retreat safely if the relatively slow-moving woman had charged. “You’d still have a teaching opportunity.”
PERF’s training encourages officers to create distance between themselves and the subject, and use physical cover as protection, to let them buy time speaking with the subject rather than escalating with loud commands over the barrel of a gun. Safely away from the subject, the officer can try to develop a rapport while also summoning help, gathering more information and constantly reevaluating what steps can be taken to end the situation peacefully.
“Across the country, when we start out, it’s nasty faces, it’s mean looks,” Wilson said of skepticism from officers. “And by the time that we wrap up with a day, they’re like, ‘Oh, I get it. You’re not trying to get me killed. You’re just giving me more options.’ ”
The Montgomery trainers also watched officers in St. Louis respond to a report of a shoplifter who had just taken two drinks and a doughnut from a convenience store and was out on the sidewalk with a knife. Moments later, as captured by a citizen cellphone, a police car pulled up, one of its front wheels popping up onto the sidewalk. Two officers got out. The shoplifter, with his knife out, walked toward them.
“Shoot me!” he screamed.
“Drop the knife!” the officers yelled back.
He got closer.
“Shoot me now!” he yelled.
The video was paused.
“What do you all think?” Wilson asked.
“Officers still rush in,” said Montgomery Lt. Marc Erme, who later talked about the traditional hero and warrior mentality among police. “They hear knives. In their minds, it’s an emergency. They’re going in. They’re immediately closing that distance. They’re immediately drawing their gun with the whole ‘Drop the knife! Drop the knife!’ And now it’s just closed off all communication.”
The advice: Slow it down.
“Slowing it down,” another officer retorted, “until he starts killing the store owner. And then it becomes that ‘you’re not doing your job.’ ”
Montgomery’s training director, Capt. Jason Cokinos, tried to strike a middle ground, saying Montgomery already is trying to emphasize more planning on the way to answering such “knife calls.”
The rest of the video was shown later in the training. The officers fired more than 10 rounds, killing the shoplifter.
'Time is our friend'
Not every de-escalation effort ends well. A Hillsborough County, Fla., sheriff’s deputy was stabbed in the neck in October while he “used de-escalation techniques” to try to calm a man in mental crisis, the sheriff said. The deputy was not seriously hurt.
But for de-escalation to be successful, trainers say, police departments must get buy-in from skeptical officers.
Before training rolled out in Louisville, Sgt. Justin Witt said he visited nearly three dozen roll calls to prepare and educate officers. Their biggest concern, voiced again and again: “You’re going to get us killed.”
“Just because we’re talking about de-escalation doesn’t mean we’re losing our level of officer safety,” Witt told the officers. “It’s simply to give you more options, more time to allow the de-escalation with the suspect. Try to get behind cover — let’s not go up the ‘use of force’ ladder.”
Officers have long been trained to move from verbal commands to hands-on control to Taser to gun. They’ve also been trained to think that if a knife-wielding subject is within 21 feet, shooting them is acceptable. Louisville changed its use-of-force policy “from that traditional progression to a cycle of force” in which options, including nonlethal, are constantly considered, Witt said.
The results, criminologists say, have been successful. A recent examination of PERF’s training for the Louisville Metro Police Department showed 28 percent fewer use-of-force incidents by officers, 26 percent fewer injuries to citizens, and 36 percent fewer injuries to officers. After officers were trained, the study surveyed them between January 2019 and February 2020.
“These results were beyond chance,” concluded the study, headed by University of Cincinnati criminologist Robin S. Engel and funded by the university’s joint project with the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) and the Center for Police Research and Policy. “These significant reductions in force and injuries occurred above and beyond observed changes in arrest patterns.”
Louisville police averaged 51 use-of-force incidents per month from 2010 through 2014, 40 per month from 2015 through 2018, and then about 30 per month early this year.
On March 13, a Louisville officer shot and killed Breonna Taylor as police carried out a no-knock search warrant at her apartment, igniting more protests. But Engel, PERF and Louisville officials all noted that Taylor’s shooting involved a man firing a gun at officers, a situation in which de-escalation does not apply.
“If every police department were to implement this, I think we would look to save 200 to 300 lives a year,” Wexler said. He said 85 police agencies have told PERF they’ve implemented its training, and representatives from 600 more agencies have attended sessions on it.
“A lot of the time in our research, we often find changes in officer attitudes, but very infrequently do we find changes in actual officer behavior,” Engel said of the Louisville survey. “To find such a strong impact on police-citizen interaction is really encouraging.”
Then-Assistant Chief Robert Schroeder brought the PERF training program to the Louisville department and agreed to the study with Engel. He said officers appreciated the new approach, with 80 percent saying it was useful and that they would recommend it to others.
“This is a set of tools that gives us more time to talk,” Schroeder said. “More time to get resources there. Give the person more time to think about their life. Time is our friend.”
'Communities are clamoring for it'
Four years ago, after PERF unveiled its “30 Guiding Principles” on use of force with a focus on the “sanctity of life” for both officer and citizen, the police establishment pushed back. The IACP and the Fraternal Order of Police, not usually allies, issued a joint statement denouncing the approach. “What a ridiculous piece of claptrap!” declared one Los Angeles police union leader.
Terrence Cunningham, then the police chief of Wellesley, Mass., and president of the IACP, joined the criticism in 2016. But in Louisville, “clearly de-escalation training worked and it changed behaviors,” said Cunningham, who is now deputy executive director of the IACP. “Communities are clamoring for it.”
Lt. Scott Swenson of Baltimore remembered sitting with crossed arms and a stern expression when first learning of the de-escalation training, filled with phrases like “collect information” and “act, review and reassess.” He nevertheless brought 30 Baltimore field training officers in for a pilot session and realized the department’s existing training was too compartmentalized. Some officers also struggled to understand the difference between criminal activity and mental health crisis. They also tended to approach people too quickly, making them more likely to draw their weapons.
“That’s kind of when the lightbulbs went off,” Swenson said, adding that Baltimore now trains all officers with PERF’s methods.
The city’s police commissioner, Michael S. Harrison, said the training has helped drive down the frequency of officers using force.
“It has changed the way we think about when, how and with whom we use force,” Harrison said.
In Montgomery County, the actions of Hines, the young Burlington officer who faced the suicidal woman, made its way into the training. The room could hear his calm voice. Officers saw the woman begin talking, trusting and engaging.
“Thaddeus did a great job!” a Montgomery officer said, prompting applause.
Hines said that, based on his training, he went into the situation thinking about how he would speak to the woman, casually leaning against the door frame, with no weapon out and no aggressive posture. He made sure to ask questions and let her vent.
Hines has spoken to the woman since: “She’s told me that the difference between me and her brother is that I did listen.”