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'Social Workers of Last Resort': Police Adopt New Training Techniques

Some police are now required to undergo de-escalation and mental health training, administer first aid to people after using deadly force, and undergo an independent investigation into their use of deadly force.

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By Matt Vasilogambros

More than 200 police recruits in black uniforms and tight haircuts turn in unison, marching toward the flagpole on a sunny May morning at the Washington state training center next to SeaTac Airport. Before they say the Pledge of Allegiance, they drop to the concrete and deliver 20 pushups in front of onlooking command staff — just a small slice of the 10,000 reps they’ll do over the next 90 days.

But this isn’t the bit of basic police training that most in the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission leadership are focused on now. By early June, leaders need to create a new set of rules for training officers statewide on de-escalation techniques, mandated by a state ballot initiative and legislation that passed by wide margins in the past six months.

Those de-escalation techniques can prevent potentially deadly interactions between police and residents. One group this especially will help is people with mental illness.

Dan Christman, a longtime officer and the commission’s program manager in charge of writing those rules, knew something had to change. Residents were so frustrated that they gathered 360,000 signatures for a ballot initiative that passed with 62% support across party and regional lines. The legislature unanimously passed a bill with clarifying language in February.

Police are now required to undergo de-escalation and mental health training, administer first aid to people after using deadly force, and undergo an independent investigation into their use of deadly force.

“The real message is: Let’s train police officers so they stop hurting our family members, our loved ones,” Christman said. “There’s nothing wrong with that message at all. None of us want to pull a trigger.”

Even when other states often viewed Washington as progressive in mental health training and crisis intervention, civil rights activists in the state demanded even more training.

Lacking proper mental health resources, families and community members across the country all too often call police to respond to someone having a mental health crisis.

Understanding this mental health role for law enforcement, states have had to respond with new training techniques in dealing with crises, hoping to avoid deadly encounters and further suffering to people with mental illness.

But this remains a challenge nationwide. Of the 992 people who were shot and killed by police last year, 213 had a mental illness , the Washington Post found.


Implementing Reform

Rex Caldwell, the commander at the Washington state training commission, knows what it’s like to have a family member in crisis. His son, who had schizophrenia, died by suicide.

The day it happened, his counselor called Caldwell, warning that his son might harm himself. Caldwell relied on police to handle the moment delicately, unaware that he was already dead.

“When cops got there, I met with the supervisor and said, ‘When you go in, and he’s alive in there and he reacts, please don’t hurt him,’” Caldwell recalled. “Not that I had a fear that they would, but because sometimes people call the cops for folks in crisis and it goes sideways. And even I know that.”

Caldwell now leads the training for 275 local law enforcement agencies across Washington state.

New training will include implicit and explicit bias, patrol tactics, the history of race and policing, and first aid.

Recruits are trained to understand that their vocal commands are as important as their body language. Further, they’re taught that when someone has a mental illness, irrational fear and a lack of impulse control may make it hard to follow an officer’s instructions.

De-escalation takes patience, as one incident from January illustrates. After receiving a domestic violence call, Seattle police arrived at a home to find a person threatening self-harm with a knife, according to police reports. Police cleared the home and tried calming the “distraught” person.

De-escalation procedures continued for more than two hours, according to the reports, until the person was escorted with minimal force to paramedics for “a successful resolution.”

As Caldwell introduced himself to seven new squad leaders at the academy one morning earlier this month, he gave the stiff-backed group of recruits some advice.

“Overall, set the example,” Caldwell told the group. “If someone is loud and agitated, you can’t be loud and agitated.”

National failures in the mental health system have led family and community members to rely on law enforcement when dealing with crises, said Ron Honberg, a senior policy adviser at the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

“They don’t have any other option but to call 911,” Honberg said. “But you don’t want to approach these situations with a SWAT team. It’s gasoline on a fire.”

About a third of people with severe mental illnesses receive treatment for the first time through an interaction with law enforcement, according to a May study from the Treatment Advocacy Center, a Virginia-based nonprofit that seeks to expand mental health treatment.

Tragedies can be prevented if officers keep their distance, remain calm, and don’t yell or threaten the person having a mental health crisis, Honberg said.

A mental health crisis takes many forms. Police may be called by a family or community member, or just happen upon someone in distress. Officers could arrive at a scene where someone is threatening to harm themselves or others.

The person in crisis could be armed with anything from a gun to a syringe, or not armed at all. People with mental illness may have symptoms that are so severe at that point that they may not even be able to recognize what’s going on.

Because of the many variables, these situations require “patience, empathy and compassion,” Honberg said.

When he joined the force in 1981, Caldwell didn’t have de-escalation or crisis intervention training. When he went out on a call, he dealt with violent people with violence. It took years of “gathering scars” before police learned new tools, he said.

“I emphasize to my students that every single human being that you’re going to talk to has a rich and complex backstory,” he said. “You are seeing them generally in crisis. That’s not who they are.”

Police have become “the social workers of last resort,” said Jim Pugel, Seattle’s former interim police chief. When the mental health system fails, and when families or medication can’t prevent a crisis, it’s up to police to respond, he said. And they can respond best with the right tools.

“Give us the right training,” Pugel said. “If you’re really an honest cop, and you want to do the best thing for the community, you have to be more thoughtful with the way you do it. Train us how to do it.”

Christman, the de-escalation program manager at the academy, is leading the rule-writing process following the successful ballot initiative. The first of three rounds of redefined rules will be voted on June 6 by a group of community members and law enforcement officials.

“It’s been pretty historic and super important work,” Christman said. “Change is hard, especially for our industry. But I’m excited about this change. I think it’s going to be a good thing for the state.”

By 2028, the commission hopes to retrain all 11,000 police officers in the state.


Across the Country

On that May morning at the academy, three senior officers with the Oakland Police Department in California were in town to learn more about the way Washington trains its police officers, viewing their colleagues two states north as national leaders.

While the techniques and standards differed from training in the Bay Area, Oakland officers took note of what they observed.

Every year, officials from several states and countries, including most recently from Mexico, visit Washington to learn about their training techniques, Caldwell said.

Almost every state sets standards for mental health and de-escalation training among police officers. Nearly 20 states have updated those standards in the past five years, according to a study from the Council of State Governments Justice Center.

The state updates, generally, require additional hours for mental health and de-escalation training, the study shows. States are also integrating crisis intervention and mental health first-aid training into their basic police academy training.

Last July, for example, Minnesota enacted a law that requires all 10,500 police officers receive 16 hours of crisis intervention training. In February, Oregon began that training for 911 operators statewide.

Crisis intervention training and other tools won’t prevent every bad outcome, said Amy Watson, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who studies the criminal justice and mental health systems. Sometimes police officers must use force, she said, but those instances are rare.

Earlier this year, a Texas officer who received dozens of hours of crisis intervention training shot and killed a woman during an arrest attempt. The woman, who had paranoid schizophrenia, used the officer’s Taser against him.

Thus far in 2019, police have shot and killed 14 Washington residents — more than in 43 other states nationwide, according to a count from the Washington Post. Three of them had a mental illness.

Watson, who also sits on the board of directors for Crisis Intervention Team International, a group that helped get the program in 2,700 communities nationwide, said officers consider several factors when responding to an armed person having a mental health crisis: What kind of weapon they have, what kind of space they are in and how many officers are present.

“Obviously zero shootings of people with mental illness would be fabulous,” she said. “But if there’s a gun pointed at them, the officers’ choices are pretty limited.”

King County, which surrounds Seattle, established the Familiar Faces partnership of governmental and nongovernmental entities within the criminal justice and health systems. With the partnership, the county integrates publicly funded care for people with mental health or substance abuse issues who frequently have been in jail.

The county currently tracks people across several platforms, including Medicaid claims, behavioral health services and homeless systems. But it will soon integrate that data with jail booking information and emergency medical services to track people who frequently use those systems.

The partnership aims to support people experiencing homelessness and mental illness and keep them out of jail, said Leo Flor, the director of the county’s Department of Community and Human Services.

“The criminal justice system is not an effective intervention for folks where the primary issue is poverty, behavioral health,” Flor said. “The type of intervention for somebody like that looks fundamentally different than a punishment-based approach.”


Continued Challenges

Separate from the ballot initiative, the city of Seattle signed a settlement agreement and a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. Department of Justice in 2012. The police department was ordered to increase training as part of that agreement, which is still in effect and overseen by a federal judge.

In addition to the eight hours of basic crisis intervention training they get in the academy, all Seattle police officers once a year take a day of de-escalation training that addresses issues specific to the city, such as homelessness, substance abuse and veterans.

Further, more than 70% of officers have volunteered for a 40-hour advanced training. Experts and officers have found the effects of the advanced training are stronger if officers volunteer for it.

Sgt. Eric Pisconski, who oversees the Seattle Police Department Crisis Response Team, said there’s been a “culture shift” in the department.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re in a traffic stop or dealing with a jumper on an overpass,” he said. “We’re going to follow our model and make the scene safe.”

This training has led to fewer harmful interactions with police in Seattle, Pisconski said. According to department numbers, of the nearly 16,000 police interactions with people who had a behavior crisis between Jan. 1, 2017, and June 30, 2018, just five involved a use of force that caused great bodily harm or death.

The February report from an independent monitor, hired by Seattle to make sure the department remains compliant with the federal consent decree, nevertheless found “significant racial and ethnic imbalance in the use of force.” People of color, according to the independent monitor and the police department, are more likely to have police point a weapon at them and search them.

While he praised Seattle’s progress, U.S. District Judge James Robart said this month the department will remain under federal oversight until it fixes its officer accountability process. He asked the department, city, federal authorities and oversight groups to come up with a plan to address his concerns by July 15.

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