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Inside a Class That Trains Cops to Use Words Instead of Guns

I sat in on a training session that was designed to teach law enforcement officers how to handle the tense, potentially violent situations that can come from dealing with veterans with PTSD.
Flickr photo via Tony Webster

A cop in Minnesota holding his gun. Photo via Flickr user Tony Webster

"Cuff and stuff" doesn't work, Bill Micklus is explaining.

After 20 years as a SWAT commander, Micklus now trains police officers to de-escalate—to use words, not guns, to resolve sticky situations. De-escalation training is the go-to reform when things go wrong; virtually every task force on law enforcement calls for more of it in this era of increased police scrutiny. So when shocking things like the chokehold death of Eric Garner, or the shooting of Laquan McDonald, result in widespread outrage, Micklus's phone at the Upper Midwest Community Policing Institute (UMCPI) in Woodbury, Minneosta, starts ringing.


When I meet up with him in April in Titusville, Florida, Micklus has recently been to a St. Louis suburb—"for obvious reasons," as he puts it.

With fellow Minnesotans Wayne Shelton, a retired chief of police, and Marine Gunnery Sergeant-turned-lawyer John Baker, Micklus teaches a two-day course: public safety de-escalation techniques for military veterans in crisis. Day one's goal is to "provide tactical tools to effectively defuse potentially life-threatening situations." Day two is all about "training the trainer," or taking yesterday's students and turning them into tomorrow's teachers.

I'm not a cop, but as a doctor who has treated veterans with PTSD, I know that when in crisis, too often the first call is to law enforcement—and too often those calls end in violence or death. As I see it, how law enforcement is working to reorient police officers to become the first responders to society's most intractable social problems is as much a medical issue as it is a policing one. If they can do this for veterans, a population many officers have a natural affinity for, perhaps those lessons will influence their work with the public.

PTSD is the signature wound of modern warfare, by some estimates affecting nearly 20 percent of soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. As a comparison, PTSD is thought to hit 7 percent of the general population, but disproportionately affects citizens in crime-ridden urban areas. Characterized as invisible, it is easily recognized in veterans whose lives are bracketed by alcoholism, drug abuse, homelessness, intimate partner violence, and frequent contact with the law.


Of course, poverty, mental illness, substance abuse are not the problems police academies train their students to handle. Theirs is a combat curriculum that stresses mental toughness and survival in battle, according to Micklus. Cadets train in gun safety, defensive tactics, and practicing "shoot, don't shoot!" scenarios. Force becomes the language of authority, and authority is sustained by force. But it's a wasteful deception, as almost all calls for service—the term used for each unit of police work—do not require force.

"There's no de-escalation chapter in the warrior book," Micklus says, the irritation palpable in his voice.

The Barbara A. Pill Law Enforcement Facility that hosts the training squats low along route 405 in Titusville. It's named for a deputy killed in the line of duty three years ago. I arrive early, and fortunately, there is coffee. The room, which could be a community college classroom, has been configured so that several round tables form a half-oval with a podium as the far focal point—a re-arrangement meant to foster conversations. Nelson Mandela's quote, "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world," decorates one wall. Soon, the 20-odd remaining chairs will be filled with Sheriff's deputies from Brevard and a few surrounding Florida counties, and one officer with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. More than half have served in the military, and almost all have close to 20 years experience each in law enforcement. Many have crisis or hostage negotiation team insignias embroidered under the image of a Sheriff's shield on their polo shirts.


How often do you get called in as a crisis negotiator, I ask my table-mate. "Well, never—except every day on the street," he quips.

It is an older, more skilled and perhaps more open group than Shellum, Micklus, and Baker are accustomed to. They typically try to reach officers about five years out of the academy, who may be starting to re-evaluate the, "I'm a cop, do what I say!" mantra. Still, even with a long-established culture of training in law enforcement, de-escalation is a tough sell. "One person screwed up and everyone pays," is what Micklus heard outside St. Louis. In New York City, after the widespread protests over Eric Garner's death, 20,000 police officers took a three-day, $35 million training that was labeled by some as a "waste"—and not just because officers were issued breath mints to suck as a deterrent to cursing. The program apparently lacked any tactical training. If you want cops to listen, talk tactics, but if you want them to learn, talk tactics that work.

New York City police officers graduating from the academy at Madison Square Garden last year. Photo via Diana Robinson

After a brief welcome, Shellum turns the microphone to Micklus, a burly man well over six feet tall who carries a mustache comb in his pocket. He and Baker will do most of the heavy lifting. There will be a pre-test for every module, slides we must get through, in order, and a test afterward. Cops trade in epigrammatic knowledge; one deputy distills four hours of training on blood-borne pathogens into, "If it's wet and not yours, don't touch it."


It makes me wonder how successful six hours of power-point slides are going to be.

Every slide and each page of the 151-page participant guide have been specified by the US Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS). Created in 1994, the program had spent over $14 billion to keep police on the streets and "to enhance crime fighting technology, support crime prevention initiatives and provide training and technical assistance to help advance community policing." The UMCPI is one the regional community policing institutes created by COPS to train police officers side-by-side with members of their communities. The hope was "to establish a standard for dealing with issues of public trust and personnel accountability." By 2001, there were 28 of these RCPIs, but today only a handful remain—victims of funding changes and, perhaps, the growing militarization of policing. They may never have been able to overcome the initial perception that community policing was, as Micklus put it, "hugs and kisses to bad guys."

At the first break in the class, I ask Micklus why he's doing this. De-escalation is an essential skill for 21st-century policing, he says, and "I want to be on the right side of history."

The real work of the class begins with the trailer to Restrepo, Sebastian Junger's and Tim Heatherington's still-urgent 2010 documentary about a group of soldiers in Afghanistan's Korengal valley. It's a place where, as Junger wrote in War, "almost every problem could get settled by getting violent faster than the other guy."


This is every officer's fear: explosive, unexpected, deadly resistance. And it's made even more potent by the understanding that many returning vets are better trained to kill than any police officer. It's not a fair fight when they meet, and that puts everyone in the room on edge. De-escalation is not hand-holding, but a necessary tactic to even the odds.

When facing suspects who resist, police officers are trained to view them as threats. Their responses are guided by a "use of force continuum" that begins simply with their physical presence in uniform, includes verbal commands, and ends with lethal action. The word continuum suggests a smooth shifting of gears, but that's not how it works in practice. Officers respond to threats, both actual and perceived, in ways (hopefully) commensurate with that threat. There is no need at the class to step through increasingly more violent options. De-escalation exists in opposition to this; force is not met with greater force, but with empathy.

As a class, we read a case study: A jumper is on a roof in New York City. One cop faces off with the man, an angry, suicidal former marine. The crisis ends when the officer makes a connection over loss: "Fourteen of my buddies died" on 9/11, he tells the jumper.

This is why using veterans with PTSD as the model for teaching de-escalation is so valuable. Veterans are different, their troubles seen in the context of sacrifice and shared kinship: the call to service, the daily reality of facing death, and a credo of strength, honor and bravery. Most police officers, veterans or not, identify with this. So the path to empathy is less tortuous than it might be normally, and the release of biases—about mental health, substance abuse, or homelessness—less fraught.


The greatest challenge is rebalancing the native antagonism between authority and empathy. One trick is to frame empathy as evidence of strength, or as one slide put it, "Understanding human emotion can give law enforcement an edge." Another is to help officers become aware of their "conceptual baselines," their "beliefs that don't have a basis in fact," which outside COPS training manuals are commonly understood as prejudices. (Racism is never mentioned during the training, though same-sex marriage is.)

The trailer to Restrepo is just one of six videos we'll see, each linked to a different teaching module. There will be modules on the converging conditions that put soldiers at risk for stress-related disorders, the disorders themselves, reintegration challenges faced by veterans, and then the actual de-escalation tactics, which will be taught by having us run through case studies in small groups.

The case studies come after our lunch break, but before we get to them, we watch an NPR video about a multi-officer high-speed car chase that ends in a showdown in a pasture in North Dakota. At one point, captured in unexpectedly cinematic dash-cam video, Brock Savelkoul, an apparently suicidal veteran, comes within a few feet of one of the officers. He is brandishing a handgun, his AR-15 somewhere near his out-of-gas truck. "I don't know how he didn't get shot," says Megan Christopher, the only officer interviewed for the story. Everyone in the room agrees, dumbfounded.


In the video, we hear her de-escalating, using the techniques we're trying to learn: active listening, emotional labeling, mirroring, and encouragement. "Why was she was the one doing all the talking?" I ask. Because she was probably the only one whose vehicle had a working PA system, is the consensus. That may have been an asset, but it just underscores how equipment problems, communication errors, and inaccurate information from dispatchers can have devastating consequences that no amount of de-escalation training will fix.

In groups of five or six, we read the case studies and formulate responses for various situations: a violent veteran in a mall, a domestic abuse incident, a veteran assigned a menial job by a demeaning supervisor, a veteran fighting with his parents with whom he lives, a road rage incident, and a depressed veteran possibly going "postal." It is the least effective part of the day, perhaps because it comes near the end, but also because it is more thought experiment than physical learning. De-escalation needs to be practiced outside the classroom—train the way you fight is the SWAT mantra—in uniform, with guns, with the requirement to make the right choices. Sometimes de-escalate, sometimes not. Teach officers to use force in the context of problem solving, not how force solves problems.

A SWAT Team in Boston, Massachusetts. Photo via Flickr user matthrono

Even with the best training and intentions, another hurdle is what my classmates call "hurry-up policing." Officers are under constant pressure to close calls as fast as possible. Good policing, like good medicine, takes time and adequate resources. So unless innovative programs—like Portland's Behavioral Health Unit, which pairs police officers with mental health workers—can become as commonplace as SWAT teams, the perverse incentive of quickly arresting someone and letting the system figure out what to do with them will remain.

By the end of my two days in Titusville, after talking with officers who themselves suffered from PTSD related to their military service and others who witnessed gruesome crime scenes, I come to appreciate another juncture of policing and medicine. Our steepest challenge is not how to catch dangerous criminals and solve crimes, nor to resuscitate failing hearts and cure cancers. Instead, it is how to protect and to grow our shared humanity on the job.

Will lives be saved by Shellum, Micklus and Baker's work? It may be impossible to know, because they are working below the line, on the denominator, trying to make sure police officers never make headlines. "We are going to concentrate on veterans today, but these skills can be used on anyone," Shellum says in his introduction.

I hope everyone there heard him.

Stuart Lewis is a General Practioner whose writing about medicine has appeared in the Guardian, Columbia: A Journal of Arts and Literature, and several medical publications.