Some states training police to use words, not guns
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With increased media attention on police shootings, and the expensive litigation that can follow for departments, more states are requiring that officers receive training on how to resolve confrontations peacefully.
It's called de-escalation training, and the courses teach officers how to slow down and defuse potentially dangerous encounters through communication. Anecdotally, training officers to de-escalate has reduced the likelihood of violence. In cities such as Dallas and Las Vegas, which instituted the training, use of force and excessive force complaints have dropped.
Yet an APM Reports investigation published in May found that only 16 states mandated de-escalation training. Since then, five more states — Minnesota, New Jersey, Colorado, Oregon and South Carolina — have required that officers begin receiving the training. Even with that increase, only 21 states mandate any de-escalation courses.
"I really felt like the current lack of training is not fair to those suffering from mental illness, nor to the police in my state," said South Carolina state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, a Democrat who authored the 2017 bill that mandated training for the state's officers. "Essentially we're asking law enforcement officers to go out there and handle situations they're not trained to handle."
Sheheen's bill, which had a Republican sponsor in the South Carolina House and received support from community activists and law enforcement groups, passed unanimously. Beginning in 2018, the bill will require South Carolina officers to take at least two hours of the de-escalation training every year.
Sheheen had proposed a similar bill the previous session, but it failed to pass. South Carolina policing received national scrutiny following the April 2015 shooting death of Walter Scott. A cell phone video surfaced showing North Charleston officer Michael Slager shooting Scott in the back as he fled a daytime traffic stop. On Dec. 7, Slager was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison for violating Scott's civil rights.
Since Jan. 3, 2015, according to a Washington Post database, U.S. police officers shot at least 2,903 people. Of those, 692 exhibited signs of mental illness and 186 people were unarmed. Police shot 37 unarmed people who exhibited signs of mental illness, according to the Post.
Still, 29 states don't mandate the training. In its original story last spring, APM Reports found that police departments gave three main reasons: It costs too much; they don't have qualified staff to provide the courses; and it's unnecessary. In those states, the amount of hours that departments dedicate to de-escalation training can vary widely.
Starting this year, New Jersey mandated all officers take a six-hour training every five years. The training draws on concepts in existing courses and modify them for specific situations involving people with mental illnesses.
Before the mandate, New Jersey police academies had taught both de-escalation concepts and handling people with mental illness but never combined the two, said Robert Czepiel Jr., the state's deputy attorney general and head of the state Division of Criminal Justice Training Academy. As a result, the state had to start with educating the trainers. Mental health experts taught police trainers first, before they trained the officers. "The challenge was actually creating this training and having it be something the [officers] can take and use," Czepiel said.
Since May, legislatures have also required de-escalation training in Minnesota (16 hours of de-escalation training every three years) and Colorado (two hours every five years).
De-escalation training, sometimes known as crisis intervention training, isn't a new concept, but the mandates largely are. Jim Ferraris, chief of the Woodburn Police Department in Oregon, was part of a group that helped create a set of de-escalation training recommendations for the state that were recently implemented. In the 1990s, when Ferraris worked in Portland, he said the department began to institute the training in response to violent situations, and in 2003, the department mandated 40 hours of crisis intervention training for every officer. He estimates that about half the calls the Woodburn department handles now involve people with mental illness, and de-escalation training helps his officers resolve those encounters peacefully. "It is effective," he said. "We know it works."