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Thursday, December 12, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Nichole Gibson: Video shows need for police de-escalation training

By Nichole Gibson Disability Rights Washington

Our community pays law enforcement officers to help keep the community safe. Unfortunately, a recently released video demonstrates that some law enforcement officers may have very different ideas than the community about what that safety looks like. The Spokane Police Department recently released bodycam footage of police who pinned an SUV between a snow berm and a police cruiser; smashed out the vehicle’s windows, relentlessly yelled obscenities at a man inside while explicitly repeating they are going to kill him, before they sic a dog on him while he is lying down in the SUV with no means of exiting.

One of the officers involved claims this type of behavior is what de-escalation looks like. The community sees it for what it is: dangerous escalation. This video confirms that law enforcement needs more violence de-escalation and mental health training. Closing the gap between the expectation the community has for its law enforcement and the behaviors evidenced in this video is urgent.

Last year, Washington state voters resoundingly passed Initiative 940 to improve safety and trust for both community and law enforcement. The initiative passed with a 20 point margin of victory, making it easier to hold law enforcement officers accountable if they inappropriately use deadly force, provides for independent investigation of such incidents, and requires police get de-escalation and mental health training.

Approximately one-third of people killed by police in Washington state over the past several years were experiencing mental illness. Disability Rights Washington was honored to be invited to serve alongside other community leaders as part of De-escalate Washington, the community coalition that authored and campaigned for I-940. Therefore, we are extremely invested in making sure the reforms are actually realized and not just words on a page.

Regulations were recently adopted to further define de-escalation and mental health training under the new law. The regulations state that de-escalation techniques are “communication methods that de-escalate situations when appropriate to reduce the likelihood of injury to all parties involved, [and] avoid unnecessarily escalating situations that may lead to violence …”

The rules go on to detail numerous examples of de-escalation practices, such as managing the distance between the officer and the persons involved; utilizing shielding to protect the officer and others from a threat; managing the pace of an interaction; and engaging in communication to increase options for resolving the incident and reduce the likelihood of injury to all parties involved.

The rules further require training law enforcement officers in recognizing and managing the impact of stress on the officer’s perceptions and reactions; understanding emotional intelligence and self-awareness; and use of techniques and communication strategies to calm persons who appear to be agitated or demonstrating unusual behavior related to a mental or behavioral health issue or other disability.

The behaviors and actions evidenced in the recently released video directly contradict much of what the training regulations describe. It is not calming, does not use time, shielding, distance or communication to de-escalate, and shows a lack of emotional intelligence. For some in law enforcement to claim that this video reflects valid de-escalation techniques is disingenuous.

It is also disrespectful of the genuine community engagement that many in law enforcement have engaged in since passage of I-940. The community is clear that the police actions in this video do not meet the standards established in law for de-escalation, let alone a basic common-sense understanding of the word.

It also undermines other positive work law enforcement is doing to better respond to people in crisis. Last year, the Spokane Police Department started taking mental health professionals along with them in some patrol cars. These co-responders – or co-deploy teams – are largely the product of funds generated by Trueblood, a lawsuit led by Disability Rights Washington to stop the warehousing of people with mental illness in local jails across the state.

The modest program of four co-deploy teams has had great success. These teams are often the reason that police do not make unnecessary arrests or transports to emergency rooms. This program actually embraces de-escalation and builds trust with the community it serves. These hard-working mental health professionals and officers are taking steps in the right direction.

The community has made clear its support for better use of de-escalation techniques by law enforcement. The actions in this video did not meet that community expectation. Law enforcement needs to recognize this failure as fact and work to fix it.

Nichole Gibson is an investigator with Disability Rights Washington, a private nonprofit organization that protects the rights of people with disabilities statewide.

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