Published: May 17, 2017 By

Last January, the Denver Police Department re-drafted its use-of-force policy in an attempt to better meet community standards for policing. Unfortunately, the department’s efforts fell short of the public’s expectations on several levels.

What Denver police can learn from Seattle’s de-escalation policy

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Perhaps the biggest issue was the complaint by groups who said they felt left out of the process.

Only after the policy’s release – and the subsequent outcry for more community engagement – did the department seek out community input. The department set up an email account where community members could respond to the new policy, and later scheduled three community meetings to discuss the new draft.

In addition to complaints about the process through which the department drafted the new policy, the policy itself was criticized and rejected. Citizen groups said the changes didn’t go far enough, and police organizations argued that the new policy could lead to more crime and set officers up for failure.

The current draft was overly vague with a standard below that of other major U.S. agencies, wrote Denver Independent Monitor Nicholas E. Mitchell in a letter to Denver Police Chief Robert White. In addition, Mitchell wrote, the drafted policy failed to adhere to national standards, including in its definition of “deadly force”.

It has been four months since the department first released its draft of the new policy, and so far little progress has been announced. There appears to be no end date in sight for releasing a new version of the policy, leaving officers and the community in limbo.

The department’s treatment of this process is important. The new policy will set guidelines for how much force should be used when engaging with suspects, what type of force to use and when to use it. These standards can change the whole philosophy behind a department and can make or break community relations.

Most importantly, when implemented properly, better use-of-force policies have the potential to save lives.

Denver is only the latest of a number of large cities working to re-think their use-of-force practices and add an emphasis on what police call de-escalation.

At its heart, de-escalation is the practice of defusing situations rather than inflaming them. It’s the art of creating more time, more space and more dialogue between an officer and a suspect in hopes that both will emerge safely from whatever conflict they’re in.

The officer-involved shooting of Michael Brown in 2014, followed by several high-profile incidents involving the death of black suspects at the hands of white officers, prompted more than a dozen cities and states to implement de-escalation trainings, either as part of their usual trainings or as a separate requirement.

According to a map created by the investigative news organization, AMP Reports, 15 states currently require de-escalation trainings.

Colorado officers are required to take two hours of de-escalation training during their first year, with additional two-hour trainings required on a two-year cycle, according to Colorado POST. Other cities like Dallas, Las Vegas, New York, Chicago and Minneapolis have  embraced de-escalation tactics and use-of-force reform to seemingly positive results.

One of the most noteworthy cities to reform its use-of-force standards is Seattle, where only a few years ago the community’s anger over excessive force prompted the U.S. Department of Justice to become involved, issuing a consent decree. In its complaint against the department, the DOJ wrote that officers at the Seattle Police Department showed a pattern of conduct that “deprives persons of rights, privileges, and immunities secured and protected by the Constitution and the law of the United States.”

In 2012, SDP and the DOJ came to an agreement that reached into the heart of the department’s practices. The agency, once known for its aggressive and sometimes controversial tactics, would go on to become one of the first in the nation to make de-escalation guidelines a matter of policy.

Today the agency is a leader for de-escalation training, practices and policy around the country – referenced heavily and favorably in the Police Executive Research Forum’s Guiding Principles On Use of Force, which was published with cooperation by agencies around the country in 2016.

As DPD officials struggle to draft a use-of-force policy that satisfies community and police standards, Seattle can serve as a case study for what can go wrong and what can go right when it comes to use of force.

I traveled to Seattle to find out how SPD officers worked to change their use-of-force practices, and to see what officials in Denver can learn from a city where new policies led to positive changes.

SEATTLE – “Possible shooting, 159 Denny Way, we’ve got an employee that said someone was getting shot and then disconnected the line.”

This is what came over the radio about 20 minutes into my ride-along with Sgt. Dan Nelson.

The call made me cringe. Before moving home to Colorado, I spent three years in Seattle, and I recognized the address as being near the heart of the city.

Nelson, however, seemed remarkably relaxed. Navigating the steep, narrow streets of downtown Seattle, the broad-shouldered, good-natured officer cruised along, unfazed by the chaos of UPS trucks squeezing around corners and bikes flying through intersections.

Stephanie Cook/CU News Corps Sgt. Dan Nelson fills out a report after responding to a shooting threat in downtown Seattle. These reports help SPD keep track of use-of-force incidents.

Stephanie Cook/CU News Corps

Sgt. Dan Nelson fills out a report after responding to a shooting threat in downtown Seattle. These reports help SPD keep track of use-of-force incidents.

“You get a pretty good rush of adrenaline, so you have to manage it so you can make a clear decision so that we don’t end up in crisis,” Nelson said, steering an old black car recycled from one of the gang units down a hill crammed with cars parked on both sides.

We pulled up to a business complex where blue and red lights of at least eight other police vehicles flashed on both sides of the block. I braced myself before stepping out of the car to watch Nelson enter the glass doors of Emerald City Cleaners, where the call originated.

Inside, a cluster of officers surrounded a man who was looking up at them from a chair. A few crouched down in an effort to talk to him. No one was running or yelling, and there didn’t appear to be anyone injured inside or out on the street.

After a few minutes, Nelson emerged with an update. There was no shooting, he said. The man in the chair had come by the store earlier for a job interview, but his behavior made a female employee nervous and uncomfortable. The situation escalated, leading the man – not the employee – to call in the shooting that we heard over the radio.

This incident – involving false claims of a shooting, confusing information and a man who couldn’t reasonably explain himself – could have ended tragically under different circumstances. Instead, officers were able to quickly figure out that the man had no weapon and wasn’t an imminent threat, calm him down and begin searching for the best solution for the public and the suspect. To do this, officers looked into the suspect’s criminal history, as well and his mental health history.

“He does have a history of mental health issues,” Nelson said. “I called the crisis clinic and they told me that he’s not receiving services anywhere. We don’t have a diagnosis – there’s no hospitalization history – but he was enrolled in our municipal mental health court back in 2014, so we know that there is some kind of mental health nexus there. Right now he’s saying that he’s Jesus Christ and he’s pretty delusional, so they’re trying to figure out what they’re going to do with this person.”

The officers wound up with a choice between arresting the man or hospitalizing him. They chose the second option, and rather than sending him off in the back of a police car, the man was transported into an ambulance.

For Nelson, the coordinator of SPD’s Crisis Intervention Program, this incident showed the positive result of years of work trying to find ways of peacefully resolving confrontations between the police and mentally ill suspects.

Seattle once had an ugly track record of using excessive force in confrontations with its sizeable mentally ill and homeless populations.

One of the most high-profile cases took place in 2010, shortly before the 2011 consent decree, when an officer noticed a man walking through a cross-walk with his head down while holding a small knife. The officer left his patrol car, yelled to the man, and then and shot him four times, killing him in the street. The man turned out to be a Native American woodcarver named John T. Williams. He was holding a small piece of wood and a pocket knife that he used for carving.

The shooting, which was later ruled as being unjust by SPD’s Firearm Review Board, prompted a huge community outcry. Nelson’s mission is to help SPD officers avoid similar situations in the future, by teaching them to safely engage with suspects rather than going straight for their weapons.

When SPD began taking steps toward use-of-force reform, they asked Nelson to help design de-escalation trainings. He soon realized, however, that there was no real model to follow.

“They were like ‘Just go out there and whatever’s on the shelf, let’s go ahead and do that,’” Nelson said. “I’m like, ‘Perfect.’ And so I was in charge of Googling, and I was trying ‘de-escalation for cops’ and there was nothing out there – there was nothing.”

Nelson and the department looked at research, as well as other agencies in the states and abroad, to find ways to add de-escalation into their routines.

“We now have gotten to the point where de-escalation concepts are literally ingrained in all of our trainings,” he said

Some of the most effective methods of de-escalation seem incredibly simple. Officers can back up rather than charging forward toward a suspect. They can try to speak calmly and use open body language. Rather than folding their arms or holding the collar of their tactical vests – a common habit among police, Nelson said – officers can keep their arms out by their sides and turn their palms up when they address a suspect.

While these techniques are basic, they do require practice.

Learning and implementing de-escalation techniques can be especially difficult for veterans of the force, who may have been taught for years that they should act with absolute authority and resolve situations as quickly as possible by whatever means necessary. This group includes Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole, who attends mandatory trainings along with all other officers, trainers said.

Stephanie Cook/CU News Corps Sgt. Dan Nelson (far left) and other officers stand by as a suspect is transported to the hospital for mental health treatment.

Stephanie Cook/CU News Corps

Sgt. Dan Nelson (far left) and other officers stand by as a suspect is transported to the hospital for mental health treatment.

“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,” O’Toole told The New York Times in 2015. “But over time, 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.”

Nelson finds ways to break the tension at trainings, so that officers don’t feel attacked or become defensive when learning to avoid problematic techniques of the past.

“This really helps set the stage for a little comic relief,” he said queuing up a projector. “Not really comic relief, but, um, it takes the edge off of talking about de-escalation. It’s a really hard topic to talk about with cops because they’ve been so heavily scrutinized.”

On the screen, Nelson played an old-timey black and white movie where officers find themselves dealing with people in various mental health crisis. The film was at once hilariously outdated and oddly pertinent.

“To a mental patient in this condition, the threat of a gun is meaningless,” the chief in the video says. “What is needed here is manpower.” The chief goes on to describe several of the exact same de-escalation tactics Nelson teaches today.

“This is New Orleans in the 60’s,” Nelson said laughing. “This is they’re training video and what were they talking about? They’re talking about experienced patrol officers, there talking about – jail’s not a great place for people with mental health issues – they’re talking about the reason we’re getting into trouble is because people try and handle things themselves – they don’t call in enough resources. It’s like, we’re having this conversation in the 60’s, here we are in 2017, you know this is not new material.”

The material isn’t new, but putting de-escalation into police policy is. There’s a whole section in the department’s manual on de-escalation, and the main point is as follows:

“When safe under the totality of the circumstances and time and circumstances permit, officers shall use de-escalation tactics in order to reduce the need for force,” the policy states.

This doesn’t mean officers don’t use their guns in Seattle.

When the public or an officer is in imminent danger, police are expected to shoot. However, under this policy, an officer who shoots his or her weapon should be ready to defend that decision, and explain any ways they tried to avoid such an outcome. Shooting should be the last choice an officer makes, not the first.

In the classroom, Nelson walks through these techniques using slides, showing photos of people in a parking lot holding various objects, sometimes with bystanders nearby and sometimes by themselves, and asks whether force should be used in each case. Even in a calm, controlled environment, it’s tricky to figure out when to apply force and how much to apply.

Of course police face much higher stakes in their jobs, where they don’t have time to contemplate all the possible outcomes. This is where SPD’s live trainings come into play.

Nelson’s colleague, Lt. Shannon Anderson, helps conduct these trainings, putting officers through scenarios that are as realistic as possible and then debriefing afterward.

The live trainings are conducted inside a warehouse-like building, sectioned off by tarps and mats to create various rooms that resemble low-budget theater sets. The whole scene is an odd contradiction between official police business and DIY-style ingenuity.

It’s amazing the things trainers have come up with, Anderson said, pointing to pieces of plywood on wheels that can be rolled around to create dark corners or dividers. Inside a long, dark hallway, the same wooden dividers were placed in shadows with posters of various suspects – some who looked creepy but had no weapon, and others who were wielding a gun.

After the simulations and after real-life incidents, Anderson encourages officers to constantly reflect.

Public Market

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“We look at incidents and we say, ‘OK, what could we have done better?’” Anderson said. “And it’s not to say that we did anything wrong, it’s just to say, ‘What could we have done better? What could we have done differently?’ ” 

SPD officers are required to take at least eight hours of critical incident training, aimed at dealing with people in the midst of a mental health crisis. Officers can also take 40 hours of training to receive an advanced certificate. Several of the officers who responded to the suspected shooting at Emerald City Cleaners, Nelson said, had earned the special certification.

Critical incident training and de-escalation training were traditionally separate, but the department is working to combine them into one track.

In addition to putting de-escalation into policy and implementing trainings, SPD started keeping better track of its daily encounters. Through these improved crime statistics, the department can better understand how much force its officers are using, when they are using it, and when they are successfully avoiding it.

Based on these statistics, the department’s efforts to improve its use-of-force practices and make de-escalation a priority seem to be saving lives.

According to a report on crisis intervention by the department throughout 2015, fewer than 8 percent of people experiencing a mental health crisis were arrested. Also, out of about 9,300 crisis responses the same year, 149 involved any use of force, with 36 of them involving force greater than low-level force. This means that in 2015, about 1.6 percent of incidents involving a person in the midst of a mental health crisis ended in force, and about .4 percent of those cases ended in more than the lowest-level force.

Denver and Seattle are different cities with different issues, but communities in both places want to know that the sanctity of life is at the forefront of officers’ minds. As Chief White continues to revise the city’s use-of-force policy, he should remember this.

DPD officials could make their commitment to the local community clear by making de-escalation a strong part of the department’s policy, and by adding de-escalation methods to all areas of officers’ training. The department should keep rigorous statistics on its practices so that it can monitor its progress and assess areas that need improvement.

One mile above sea level

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In addition, the community, as well as other officers and officials, should be a part of this conversation.

Most importantly, Chief White shouldn’t wait for a wake up call to happen before these changes are made. Drafting the new use-of-force policy and implementing it effectively should be a priority with a clear and realistic timeline.

Back in her Seattle office, Anderson warned of the dangers of complacence.

“Everybody just kind of goes, ‘Ooh, we’re operating really well, we can concentrate on other things,’ and then something happens and we realize, ‘OK, wait a minute, we can’t let up, we have to keep these lines of communication open,’” she said. 

That’s a lesson Denver can learn the hard way, or the easy way, depending on its actions moving forward. 

The Supreme Court and Denver police

The legal precedent for use of force was set by the 1989 Supreme Court case, Graham v. Conner.

“The ‘reasonableness’ of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight,” wrote Justice William Rehnquist in his opinion on behalf of the court.

Denver Police Department’s proposed use-of-force policy includes a section on reasonable and necessary force that mirrors the Supreme Court’s language:

“Reasonable and Necessary Force: A standard which requires officers to use only that degree of force that is reasonable and necessary under the totality of the circumstances to safely accomplish a legitimate law enforcement function. Reasonable and necessary force is an objective standard, viewed from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, without the benefit of 20/20 hindsight.”