A despondent, reportedly suicidal man sat on the couch of his dimly-lit apartment, a long knife within arm’s reach. Two Fairfax County police officers spoke calmly with him, talked about his options, and carefully picked up the knife. Elsewhere, a shaggy looking fellow, strolling through a tony neighborhood recently hit by burglaries, suddenly reached for his back pocket. Two other Fairfax officers watched him closely, but did not shoot.
Fairfax police Chief Edwin C. Roessler invited reporters to watch his officers train in “de-escalation” tactics Tuesday, as part of what he said was “re-engineering the Fairfax County police use of force policy and training.” Roessler has fully embraced the “sanctity of life” principles put forth by the Police Executive Research Forum, and traveled to Scotland with PERF executive director Chuck Wexler last year to witness an alternative approach to dealing with angry subjects. He said the police culture which led to 990 fatal police shootings in the U.S. last year had to change.
“It’s going to take one chief,” Roessler said, “one sheriff, one department at a time to change that culture.”
Wexler was present as Roessler introduced the concept to reporters, and said that PERF, a Washington-based policing think tank, has “had a great relationship with this department. This is a department that wanted to get better. We’re Washington, we’re a think tank. We have the ideas, but you put them in place.”
Roessler took over as chief in July 2013 and said he immediately set out to revise the use of force policy. A month later, however, then-Officer Adam Torres shot and killed an unarmed man, John B. Geer, in the doorway of his Springfield home. Roessler said he had started to work with PERF prior to the shooting, and they were later hired to do an analysis of the Fairfax use of force policy. Wexler provided that last summer, introducing his “sanctity of life” concepts just months before rolling it out to a national meeting of big-city police chiefs in January of this year.
Roessler cited a recent episode where Fairfax officers confronted a man with two guns. The officers convinced the man to drop the guns, but he still charged them. The officers used a bean-bag shotgun and a police dog to control him. “Deployment of deadly force would be lawful,” Roessler said, “but for all of you in the media, it would be awful.” Roessler acknowledged the pushback from police unions and the International Association of Chiefs of Police over PERF’s de-escalation proposals, with detractors saying that adding more factors to an officer’s split-second calculus in a critical incident could endanger the officer.
“That’s a big debate,” the chief said. “I’ve been through the training. Making our job more unsafe, that is not the reality. The men and women of this department helped design this training.”
Reporters were shown a new, full-sized video simulator where officers approach a critical incident, and a trainer selects the citizen action for the officers to respond to, based on how the situation unfolds. In one, a man holding an active chain saw refused commands to put it down. In another, the officers encountered a vicious bar fight. The officers are equipped with their full toolbelt of weapons, including a Taser, pepper spray, a baton and a pistol, but try to resolve the situations without firing their guns.
“I think this is invaluable training,” said Lt. Matt Owens, “as close to real life as you can get.” He and other officers, and Wexler, said the de-escalation approach wasn’t necessarily new. “The focus has always been on verbal compliance,” Owens said. “Giving people the opportunity to respond to verbal instructions is always the best.”
Elsewhere in the training academy, two rooms furnished like a standard Fairfax apartment provided the scenario for a man acting the part of a disinterested, perhaps suicidal resident. Two officers spoke calmly, respectfully to the man, moving carefully to whisk a long knife out of harm’s way. They offered to give him a ride to a place he couldn’t otherwise reach, and the scene ended peacefully.
“We’re focusing on de-escalation,” said Officer Peter Davila, “the sanctity of life for everybody. We’re talking to them as human beings, not as a subject or a suspect.” As the trainer in the scenario, Davila said, “Sometimes there is too much individuality (among officers). What we’re saying is this is Fairfax County’s policy. Whatever bias you may have, every Fairfax County police officer is going to go through this.”
The in-service training given to all Fairfax officers advises them to “recognize human behaviors that escalate or deescalate incident outcomes,” and to “isolate, contain, wait!” The presentation reminds officers, “None of us are immune from being the next YouTube pariah. Training compels us to compare our individual methods with departmental expectations.”