• By Lt. Tim McMillan

What's The Truth About Police De-Escalation Training?

I'm well aware that police de-escalation training has been met by criticism within the police community. The argument against the training is that a large portion of police related shootings are not the officers fault. Which, may be true from a legalistic standard. However, what about from a moral standard?

At the end of the day, cops are like anyone else. We are resistant to change, and especially change that seems counterintuitive to the way we've been raised. The American police force has been raised to be a warrior class. Let's face it, you cannot have a "war on drugs" or a "war on violent crime" without having warriors to fight a war.

However, at some point the police community needs to decide what do we ultimately want to be? What role do we want to serve in societies? In my opinion, we should want to be a society’s moral compass. We should want to represent the highest ethical standard, therefore ensuring that justice is safeguarded in its purest form. Part of being a societies moral compass, and demonstrating the ethical standard for a community, means placing the perseverance of human life as being number one priority.

So is there real evidence that de-escalation training is beneficial? Well, potentially there is. Probably the most dominate example right now, is a viral video that is being widely shared on social media about the Salt Lake City Police Department. The video produced by ATTN, notes that the Salt Lake City Police Department hasn’t killed anyone since 2015. The video attributes this to the fact the entire department underwent de-escalation training.

Now, here are some things that need to be discussed with this viral video. The title is a little misleading or at a minimum confusing. When you say, The Salt Lake City Police Department haven’t shot and killed anyone since 2015. Does this mean, since January 1, 2015 or December 31, 2015?

In reality, the video must mean, December 31, 2015, because indeed the SLCPD did shoot and kill people in during the year of 2015. Notably, a SLCPD Officer shot and killed James Barker, 42, on January 8, 2015 after Barker tried to strike the Officer with a snow shovel. The shooting was initially ruled as being justified. However, the former David County Sheriff, William “Dub” Lawrence, came out and critically claimed that video that was newly released in 2016 showed the Officer shoot and kill Barker, after he was handcuffed and subdued. Additionally, on February 27, 2015, a SLCPD Officer shot 17-year-old Abdi Mohamed. Mohamed did not die as a result of the shooting; however, he was in a coma for two weeks after he was shot. The shooting was ruled as being justified, though the reason he was shot was because he had a broomstick that he refused to drop when officers ordered him too.

Another important question to bring up, is just because the SLCPD haven’t shot and killed anyone, doesn’t mean they haven’t shot anyone. In effect, persons who were shot may not have died. Ultimately, this indeed is true.

On January 31, 2016 two SLCPD Officers shot and critically injured a man after a foot pursuit. In this case, the man did not die, and the investigation revealed he indeed had a firearm that he pointed at officers.

Now, I’m not bringing these incidents up to diminish the potential that de-escalation training may have for reducing fatal police encounters. Rather, these are indeed facts, that need to be presented to make sure we have a clear understanding.

So, basically this viral video is saying that the Salt Lake City Police Department haven’t shot and killed anyone in roughly 16 months. This brings up the question, how significant is that? Essentially, how many people was the SLCPD shooting and killing prior to January 1, 2016? Well, in 2014 the Salt Lake City Police shot and killed 3 people. It is notable, that law enforcement in the state of Utah accounted for 15% of all homicides from 2000 to 2015, which outpaced the number of people killed by street gangs in Utah.

Ultimately, in order to find out just how many people have been shot and killed by the SLCPD starting from 2013 and going back, is a fairly difficult task to try to complete. Why? Well, because as seemingly important as it might be to keep track of police shootings in America, no organized government institution seems to find it to be something worth spending time on. In essence, there is no formal method or organization that examines and records all police related shootings. The FBI indeed collects data on police shootings, however, there is no requirement for departments to report shootings to the FBI, and frankly some do not. The only way we have any accurate number of police caused deaths since 2015, is thanks to the Washington Post undertaking the task of collecting data on police killings and forming their “Fatal Force” data bank. However, bear in mind this is only fatal shootings and does not account for shootings that do not result in a death. That number could be anyone’s guess. Same thing when it comes to police use of force, not related to shooting someone.

So as it sits, right now Salt Lake City Police Department’s de-escalation training has been successful in reducing the overall number of police shooting deaths from 2 to 0 from 2015 until 2016. Additionally, it has reduced police shootings by 33% from 3 to 1 from 2015 to 2016. In terms of Salt Lake City’s violent crime rate, which can be used to suggest the likelihood of an officer facing a violent encounter, the city’s violent crime rate is 47% higher than the U.S. national average. If that is any indicator than indeed, SLCPD officers could face violent encounters a higher propensity than at least the national average. However, that is merely speculation, without examining just how significant of influence a city’s crime rate actually has on the rate of police shootings.

So, what’s my opinion of de-escalation training? Well, any police training than is aimed to reduce fatal encounters cannot be a bad thing at minimum by the intent. The question remains does the training actually work, because it does us no good to put lipstick on a pig (no pun intended) and hope we solved something. Personally, I think that any training, which recognizes that by reducing the amount of survival induced stress on an individual, this can mitigate the psychological and biological responses associated with “fight or flight” in individuals. This inherently, can indeed reduce the number of fatal encounters as a result. So provided that the training is indeed effectively reducing stress and simultaneously ensuring unsafe practices aren’t occurring, I think that de-escalation training is a very good thing.

Ultimately, I truly want police agencies to function as those moral compasses in societies. In order to truly do that, it will take more philosophical shifts than just de-escalation training. However, de-escalation education is a vital component. If for no other reason, it provides a police officer with more tools in their tool belt to resolve conflicts. I think the most important thing that must be engaged in no matter what, is true legitimate research, and accurate data collection and reporting. Take for example, what I mentioned on the collection of data regarding police shootings in general. How can we possibly be expected to ever solve a problem, if we aren’t even identifying the factors that comprise the problem?

Honestly, this seems unfathomable, considering the amount of significance that has been placed on police shootings over the last five years. I cannot understand how government organizations or even social justice groups just decided to say…meh, when it came to actually determining the evidence regarding police shootings.

So is de-escalation training, such as what is suggested in the viral Salt Lake City Police Department video the magic trick to help reduce fatal police encounters? I want it to be, but right now, there isn’t enough legitimate information to make that conclusion. So now, what is incumbent on all of us, is that we demand that our law makers facilitate the resources and research that is needed to find out. Because, just because de-escalation isn’t perfect yet, doesn’t mean with a few tweaks it can’t be. Or that we at least aren’t on the right track.

Tim McMillan is a retired police lieutenant and investigative intelligence analyst; and holds BA's in mathematics and cognitive psychology. Primarily, focusing on the Defense and Intelligence Communities, he now uses his unique background, coupled with a willingness to examine any mystery, to deliver groundbreaking investigative reporting. Tim is a contributor for The War Zone, Vice, and Popular Mechanics

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