Some officers resist de-escalation push

Veterans say job about enforcing law, making arrests, not engaging public

SEATTLE -- Officer Corey Papinsky was recently showing a group of Seattle police officers how to reduce the chance of having to use force against a civilian during a suddenly antagonistic encounter.

Approaching a civilian with your hands on a weapon or making too much eye contact with someone could unnecessarily escalate a situation, Papinsky said. "Keep your hands visible at all times," he advised.

But he faced a tough crowd. "It seems good advice for the suspect," one officer said. "We want to see their hands."

Another officer had a different approach.

"Last week, there was a guy in a car who wouldn't show me his hands," the officer said. "I pulled my gun out and stuck it right in his nose, and I go, 'Show me your hands now!' That's de-escalation."

Across the country, police departments from Seattle to New York and Dallas to Salt Lake City are rethinking police tactics and attitudes that have held sway for 40 years, making major changes to how officers are trained.

The changes that departments are considering include revising core training standards and tactics, reassessing when and how to make arrests, and re-evaluating how officers approach and interact with people during street and traffic stops.

At the forefront are the de-escalation methods officers use to defuse potentially violent encounters, such as talking and behaving calmly with sometimes unreasonable people.

But some of the officers' reactions in Seattle show how hard it might be to change entrenched ideas and practices.

For police departments, the question is whether today's standard model of aggressive policing -- based in part on the broken windows theory that making arrests and issuing citations for even the most minor offenses will curb more serious crime -- is compatible with a goal of building trust within neighborhoods.

"I was trained to fight the war on crime, and we were measured by the number of arrests we made and our speed in answering 911 calls," said Kathleen O'Toole, the Seattle police chief, who is overseeing the department's changes as part of a consent decree with U.S. Department of Justice.

"But over time," she continued, "I realized that policing went well beyond that, and we are really making an effort here to engage with people, not just enforce the law."

The efforts nationwide are largely a response to a series of fatal police shootings of unarmed black men and boys during the past year and to pressure from both the White House and the public for law enforcement agencies to become more transparent in their operations. They is also a recognition that as the high crime rates of the 1980s and 1990s have ebbed, the country's appetite for a continuing war on crime seems to have diminished.

Police academies have always taught recruits how to de-escalate confrontations, but there has been less emphasis on such methods over the past 20 years. A recent Police Executive Research Forum survey of 281 police agencies found that the average young officer received 58 hours of firearms training and 49 hours of defensive tactical training, but only eight hours of de-escalation training.

In Seattle, the new training was developed as part of the consent decree, which came after the Justice Department found in 2012 that the city's police had engaged in a pattern of excessive force. The finding was underscored by the 2010 fatal shooting of a woodcarver who had been carrying a carving knife while walking down the street.

In the training, required for the department's 1,300 officers, the officers are taught to ask open-ended questions, paraphrase what a person has just said so that he knows the officer is listening, and make statements that connote empathy with the person's situation. If properly executed, these techniques will significantly decrease the need for officers to use force, police officials say.

But the changes have caused unease among many veteran officers, some of whom have filed a lawsuit challenging use-of-force guidelines required by the Justice Department. Other officers have abruptly retired.

"We've always been supposed to help people, but the emphasis has gone way farther the other way," said J. Moyer, 52, a 28-year veteran of the Seattle Police Department. "The emphasis now is that we're supposed to be social services, whereas it had been our job to look for bad guys. We're not supposed to offend anybody, but the bad guys aren't playing by the same rules."

A Section on 06/28/2015

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