The man called 911 to report trouble breathing, although in fact his plan was to commit suicide with a pistol and have paramedics find him. But when the fire-and-rescue truck arrived at his Leesburg apartment, he was still alive, holding his gun. The paramedics backed away and called the police.
Sgt. Mark Davis and Officer Alex Hilton of the Leesburg, Va., police pulled up soon after and peeked through the open apartment door. There the 78-year-old man stood, holding a gun against his chest, saying nothing. He would not answer dispatchers’ phone calls.
Davis and Hilton stepped in with their guns drawn, and Davis repeatedly told the man to put his pistol down. The man did not comply. Instead, he darted into the next room, hid behind a wall and held his gun out in the doorway, daring the officers to make the next move.
But this story does not end as many others have recently. The officers did not shoot.
Rather than fire at the armed man, Davis slid his gun back into its holster. He walked over and gripped the man’s hand holding the pistol. And, slowly, he talked the man into lowering the weapon. Then, rather than arrest him, the police arranged for him to get psychiatric treatment.
Several months later, Hilton walked past the apartment, and the man, whom police declined to to identify, stepped outside. “Officer Hilton,” the man told him, “thank you for what you guys did.”
The episode occurred last year, before many of the high-profile police shootings that have attracted intense attention in recent months. The Leesburg Police Department is trying to instill a “guardian mentality” in its officers instead of a “warrior mentality,” a sense that officers are there to “protect the citizens rather than conquer them,” Police Chief Joseph Price said.
Other departments across the country are making similar efforts. Many law enforcement agencies are grappling with how to deal with distraught or mentally ill citizens, with many chiefs of police seeking specialized “crisis intervention team” training for officers.
Price said he is gradually implementing CIT training across his 87-member force, which patrols the town of about 49,500.
But Davis and Hilton did not have CIT training when they encountered the man in his dark, cluttered apartment shortly before noon on March 14, 2014. They said they simply used common sense and did as they were trained.
“You go in thinking you are going to do the best you can,” Davis said, “but you don’t know. You have to make split-second decisions, and you have to react. When you train like you fight and fight like you train, it’s all muscle memory.”
The Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce recently awarded Davis, 54, and Hilton, 27, medals of valor for their actions — or non-actions.
“Those cops took a risk,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, “but they did what we have learned in Scotland and England — which is you try to communicate with someone by asking questions rather than issuing orders, and that more than anything else starts to de-escalate a situation. Too often in these kinds of situations, police see it as a use-of-force decision rather than a mental-health crisis. And that is so important in how you approach these encounters.”
Mental-health experts agree that being ready to talk and wait, rather than just shooting, is a key element of any street officer’s approach.
“The fact that the police responded the way they did, to de-escalate this crisis, is really important and instructive,” said Paul Gionfriddo, president of Mental Health America. “This, hopefully, will become a more common kind of response.”
Gionfriddo said officers are rightly aware of their own safety and concerned about whether they get to go home at the end of their shifts. “It’s really hard when confronted with such a situation,” he said. “This gentleman needed support and an opportunity to get help, and he got it from these officers.”
Mike Woody, president of CIT International, which provides crisis training to law enforcement agencies nationwide, said departments are “clamoring for this now.”
Studies have shown that departments that can dispatch CIT-trained officers to people in psychiatric crisis greatly reduce injuries to officers, Woody said. And that is when just 25 percent of a department’s patrol officers are CIT-trained, he said.
Sam Cochran of the University of Memphis CIT Center, where the crisis intervention program was launched in 1988 in conjunction with the Memphis Police Department, said CIT training has increased nationwide in recent years, although there are no centralized statistics. In Ohio alone, Woody said, the number of police employees with CIT training soared from fewer than 100 in two counties in 2001 to 687 in 2013. Last year, 951 took the training in 47 locations across the state.
Woody also was a police officer in Akron for 25 years, and he said of the incident in Leesburg: “We did stuff like that all the time. It’s just what we did. It wasn’t newsworthy. But now we’ve gone too far with that warrior mind-set of officers.”
Price said he still wanted Leesburg officers “to have the skills of a warrior, to be ready to use them. But 99 and 44/100 percent of the time, your mind-set has to be that of a guardian.”
Davis and Hilton said they were ready to use force if needed that day in March 2014. But the upset Leesburg man did not point his gun directly at them and did not say anything to them.
“We told him we weren’t there to hurt him,” Davis said, “but we needed him to drop the gun.”
As Davis several times repeated the command for the man to drop the gun, “he doesn’t say anything. The gun was in front of him, pointed down.” Hilton said he and Davis were perhaps eight feet from the man.
Then the man simply turned and ran into the next room.
“I was slightly unnerved,” said Davis, a sheriff’s deputy who has been a police officer since 1980. “I wasn’t sure about the layout of the apartment, and I wasn’t expecting him to turn and disappear.”
Then the man stuck his gun out into the doorway. And Davis made the key decision: “I put my pistol away.”
He walked over to the man, “reached out and grabbed the gun,” Davis said. “If you grab it a certain way, we’re taught, he can’t squeeze the trigger. I keep telling him, ‘I’ve got it; just let it go.’ After two or three times, he did let go. He let out a sigh like, ‘It’s over.’ He said he had no intention of harming us.”
As with many police officers, Davis and Hilton — the latter has seven years of service — said they have never fired their weapons in the line of duty. But they said they were ready that morning in Leesburg.
“If it came to that,” Davis said. “Maybe if he would have come back around the corner.” But instead, he put his own gun away and resolved the situation without using it.