Words not weapons: Local officers train to reduce fatal police shootings

It's called de-escalation training..and it's teaching officers how to use their words before their bullets.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – About 554 people have been shot and killed by police officers in 2017, according to a tally kept by the Washington Post. In response, there’s a push by law enforcement agencies to lower potentially fatal incidents by equipping them with a tool they already have: Their mouths.

It’s called “de-escalation training” and it’s teaching officers how to use their words before their bullets.

In the case of Philando Castile, it only took one minute in the traffic stop over a broken taillight in Minnesota for it to turn deadly. Seven shots later, he was slumped over his seat. The officer said he thought Castile was reaching for a gun and that he feared for his life.

Closer to home, a cell phone video of an officer hitting a Georgia woman several times with his baton went viral. The officer said she was resisting arrest.

“It's important to understand basically how to use your mouth, just as much as you would need to know how to use your gun," said Dr. Joyce Carbonell with the Florida Sheriff’s Association.

In Clay County – where two deputy-involved shootings have occurred this year – Carbonnell leads classes on Crisis Intervention Training.

"I'm married to a law enforcement officer,  so, my goal in life is that everyone goes home at the end of their shift, hopefully in one piece," Carbonell explained. 

In the class, 35 people from various backgrounds in law enforcement are learning how to defuse confrontation, especially when dealing with people with a mental illness.  A report published by the Ruderman Family Foundation reveals almost half of the people killed by police officers have some type of disability.

"This is serious to the point that the largest mental institution is the Cook County Jail," Carbonell added.

The report mentions that police have become the default responders to mental health calls. During CIT training, members of law enforcement hear from people suffering from mental illness, some who have experienced previous run-ins with police.

In the class, training videos are shown, such as an officer building a relationship and talking calmly to a man suffering from hallucinations.

"It helps you show a little more empathy for them, because you understand the situation much better than you did before," said Tom Barnes, a deputy with the Clay County Sheriff’s Office.

Barnes is also a training coordinator. He said every day and situation is different.

"Does this person have a weapon?  Can this person hurt me? Can this person hurt someone else?" Barnes described.

Aside from shootings, officers can find themselves in other situations that could escalate. For instance, last year, First Coast News showed a video of a Jacksonville officer beating a woman in handcuffs.  After an investigation, that officer was fired.

In April, a recent video surfaced showing a Jacksonville officer allegedly spitting on a mental patient. That video is now under investigation.

"Our goal is to have CIT training in every county in the state," Carbonell said.

Records show Duval and St. Johns Counties have had this training for awhile.  But, in 2015, $800,000 was set aside to take this training to more counties in Florida. 

De-escalation training is not required in Florida.  A minimum of one hour of training is mandatory in Georgia.
 
"It's another tool for our law enforcement agencies and in this day and age, you need all the tools you can get," Carbonell added.

Does this training actually work? Carbonell said it reduces swat call outs and use of force. She also said the Dallas Police Department is a great example of how it works.

Dallas officers were one of the first in the country to train in de-escalation.  A graph on the police department's website shows about 23 officer-involved shootings in 2012.  So far this year, there have been fewer than five.

"Sheriff Daniels wanted this training, that's why we're here," Carbonell said.

In Clay County, they're hoping that every member of law enforcement is equipped with a verbal weapon, as well as the one on their hip.

We contacted the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office on their training standards. They sent us a statement:

"De-escalation" isn't just a class you take; it's a training philosophy and mindset that JSO embraces and teaches. From the time a recruit first starts at the academy, all their coursework is imbued with the principles, concepts and tactics of de-escalating conflict."

Taking a look at officer-involved shootings involving JSO over the past 10 years, 2008 was the highest with 14  deaths. Since January of this year, there have been three deadly officer-involved shootings.

In St. Johns County, they undergo the same training. Chuck Mulligan with the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office said they have noticed a decrease in officer-involved shootings, as well.  He couldn't provide numbers at that moment. 

Mulligan did discuss some of the techniques that are taught.  For example, using a calming voice, building trust with the person you're talking to and asking permission before you do anything.  But, he said every situation is different.

"Not an 'us against them' mentality, but we're all in this together mentality,” Barnes said. “We're part of the community, so obviously, we want the community to succeed with us.”

© 2017 WTLV-TV


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