Good teachers get demoralized by constant public complaints about incompetent teaching, and good police officers in Seattle are feeling hammered by reports about excessive use of force in the SPD. The recent review by the Department of Justice was scathing, and media stories have been caustic.
There's been questioning, as in this article in The Seattle Times, of the handling of people behaving erratically by Seattle police, who have long been regarded as leaders in appropriate treatment of people dealing with mental or chemical disorders.
Excessive use of force can never be righted by reminders that Seattle Police Department (SPD) officers do courageous, unsung good work in a dangerous world. But it still seems fair to note that the rate of complaints in Seattle in 2010 about undue police aggressiveness was one-third lower than the average rate in other major U.S. metropolitan areas. This statistic and others in a recent SPD report may help explain why not everyone shares the negative perspective on the department now dominating the media.
For many people concerned about police responses to the mentally ill, it is encouraging that hundreds of officers in Seattle and King County have taken extended training in how to use noncombative intervention tactics with nonviolent persons who are in trouble (or causing it) due to psychiatric or drug-related problems.
The improved tactics are all the more necessary when holes in the social safety net have turned law enforcement sectors into society’s de facto caretakers for more and more people suffering from such illnesses. Since the 1960s, many state and county psychiatric hospitals have been shuttered, new legal restrictions on involuntary commitment have appeared on the books, and funding for community mental health programs has tanked. This means more police encounters with sick people on the streets
If the number of encounters has risen, one thing hasn't changed, said Sgt. Joe Fountain, who heads SPD's Crisis Intervention Team and teaches crisis intervention strategies to Seattle's officers. “Police have always been on the front edge of the social safety net," Fountain said. "It’s always been an officer forcing the door to find the person in the bathtub with wrists slit or the guy who hasn’t eaten in three days beating on the neighbor’s wall.” In such cases, law enforcement officers have traditionally been expected to make the first judgment call.
What has changed over the past couple of decades are ideas about what defines a good judgment call. In situations where a person experiencing a psychological meltdown is creating a disturbance but not committing a serious crime, crisis intervention tactics have proven across the country to be the most effective options.
An 11-hour standoff in 1997 with a man wielding a sword in downtown Seattle was one incident among several that prompted SPD to improve its protocols for encounters with people in crisis. A man with paranoid schizophrenia who was released after 10 years at Western State, into a world devoid of care or housing for him, paced the corner of Second and Pike downtown for hours, brandishing a sword and refusing to put it down. Police finally had to pin the man against a wall with a fire hose and hold him there with a ladder to disarm him.
SPD asked other cities what they were doing in such cases, and in 1998 the department held the first in a new series of classes for police in how to handle incidents involving disruptive people probably experiencing a psychiatric crisis. The training went beyond models common from the '60s to the late '80s, when the belief was that bias and ignorance were what compromised police responses to mentally ill people. “First-generation” efforts simply to destigmatize mental illnesses and teach officers about them had little effect on police performance, says research published in 2002 by the Los Angeles Police Department. Seattle’s version of Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) drew on second-generation models based on the “Memphis Plan,” launched in that city in 1988.
Crisis intervention training in Seattle
CIT combines educational and anti-stigma instruction with various techniques for interaction including verbal de-escalation skills learned through role-playing. Officers trained in CIT know how to cool down potentially hot encounters with a person whose mind is unbalanced, said Fountain. They also use knowledge based on previous calls about a particular person to anticipate his or her probable health needs before a case gets to the point “where the only thing possible is use of force or barricading, like with the sword man downtown."
Trainees also learn different techniques to deal with the major mental disorders — schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and clinical depression — but the goal is not to turn police into shrinks in blue. They learn to focus on a person’s behavior when responding to any problem, Fountain said. “The mistake a lot of people make is in thinking that diagnosis is what we’re concerned with. It isn't. Someone running down the street with no clothes on, we wouldn’t treat any differently whether mentally ill or not. The person is in crisis.”
So CIT is also “knowing about resources available, knowing how the mental health care system works, knowing about mental health court, 72-hour holds, case management, competency, and the web of support” that the person in trouble might have access to, said Fountain. “It takes a 40-hour training to get officers to where they can use that knowledge in problem-solving out on the street.”
About 400 SPD officers have taken the 40-hour CIT course, including 273 who are assigned to patrols, or more than one-third of the patrol force, said Fountain. The total is “easily one of the highest in the country, if not the highest,” he said. Still, that amounts to only about 30 percent of the department’s 1,300 sworn officers.
So, SPD is moving to extend and improve training in de-escalation and communication strategies, in response to recommendations about use of force made last year by the department’s Office of Professional Accountability (OPA). For example, according to an OPA document, 75 officers took a day-long course in "verbal judo," communication tactics aimed at eliciting willing compliance from civilians.
The intensity and physicality of an officer’s demands on another person to behave in a certain way have traditionally escalated according to the rising pattern "Ask-Tell-Make." Verbal judo focuses on persuasion by means of the series "Ask-Explain-Present Options-Confirm Choices-Act." Appropriate use of force is “an option when verbal skills alone will not accomplish a lawful outcome,” says the OPA document. And of course strategies practiced and role-played in classrooms don’t neatly translate to practice on the streets, where officers or civilians can get hurt or killed.
SPD also noted a real need for more training in light of a concern about Washington state’s Basic Law Enforcement Academy (BLEA) for police recruits, which does not teach CIT: “the overall message at the BLEA emphasizes physical defense strategies over verbal de-escalation options.” The emphasis is particularly consequential for Seattle at a time when baby-boomer retirements and other factors have left SPD with one-third of its members having three years or less in post-Academy experience (according to remarks last February from OPA Auditor Anne Levinson at a Crosscut meeting). Recent Academy graduates should get in-service CIT training.
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