This piece was published in partnership with the Influence.
Footage of American police officers shooting individuals who are unarmed, or armed only with blades, has sadly become all too common. What adds to the tragedy and anger is the fact that other tried-and-tested approaches are available to deal with many of these situations without loss of life.
The shoot-first instinct that seems so pervasive among many US police is in stark contrast to law enforcement tactics in other countries. British police, for example, deal with a large number of edged-weapons attacks but almost never open fire (they don't generally carry guns). Just as there are countless online videos of trigger-happy US police, there are numerous recorded examples of UK cops intervening in violent situations without firing a shot.
In one 2014 incident, for example, Albuquerque police attempting to arrest a mentally ill man for "illegal camping" opened fire on him with assault weapons when he drew a tiny blade at a great distance from the heavily armed officers. Their approach is summed up by the fact that they then handcuffed him as he lay dying on the ground. A good contrast is a 2015 video of officers in Corby, England, wresting a knife from an attacker using only pepper spray and batons at close range.
This discrepancy points to both a culture of impunity and a lack of de-escalation training among US law enforcement. I wanted to learn more about specific, practical measures that can be taken to enable US police to emulate the non-lethal approaches of their UK counterparts, so I asked three real experts.
Retired lieutenant commander Diane Goldstein is a 20-year veteran of California law enforcement, who is now a speaker for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). Goldstein thinks the problem is systemic, reflecting a lack of political will to implement proper de-escalation training across the country. She also points out some major geographical discrepancies within the US.
"If you are looking at a particular state, what you need to do is go do some research for what's called 'peace officer standards and training,'" she says. "Every state will have different types of training on use of force and what kinds of tactics they use to deal with people who are mentally ill."
Often the measures in place prove inadequate. "For example," Goldstein says, "in North Miami Beach, there was an autistic kid who left the group home, and he had like a silver toy truck or train in his hand. Someone in the community called the cops and said he was threatening suicide and had a gun." In that incident earlier this year, police shot a 47-year-old social worker from a distance as he tried to calm down the autistic man.
Goldstein believes that more thorough training in crisis intervention and working with mentally ill and developmentally disabled people would be useful. "There are a lot of models out there that other law enforcement agencies employ, [including] what are called crisis-intervention teams." Goldstein offers one specific model of pre-arrest jail diversion as a good example of how crisis intervention can prevent shootings, especially of individuals with mental-health issues.
"Memphis Police Department has what is called the Memphis Model," she says, "and it was implemented when they got involved in a bad shooting with a mentally ill person, and the community came out and were very angry. [The police] worked with the National Alliance on Mental Illness to develop a program. They now have specially trained officers who are trained at a higher level on de-escalation tactics for people who are suffering from mental illness, and on recognizing disabilities—because what happened in that North Miami beach is you had officers who did not recognize that you had a person with developmental disabilities."
Goldstein admits that the Memphis Model, with its specialized training, is expensive. But she argues that models of de-escalation training like this would ultimately pay for themselves, because they would not only reduce unnecessary deaths but also save taxpayers money by cutting the number of lawsuits against police departments.
She blames short-sighted thinking for the widespread failure to instigate proper training of this kind. "This is the thing that bothers me," she says. "Law enforcement already has the tools. I don't want to say that they don't value the tools—because most of the law enforcement agencies that I work with and train with do—but it costs a lot of money, so the bureaucracies get in the way: Oh my God, it's gonna cost tens of thousands of dollars, and we don't wanna pay the overtime, and we don't want to do XYZ... I think we need to evolve on that. You pay now or pay later."
Norm Stamper was Seattle's chief of police from 1994 to 2000—the pinnacle of his 34-year career as a police officer. Since his retirement, he has written two books about policing—To Protect and Serve and Breaking Rank—and also works as a reform advocate with LEAP and other organizations.
Stamper says his decades of experience showed him how little emphasis police departments place on de-escalation. "Until very recently, they were taught next to nothing about de-escalation skills, and that's pretty much true throughout the country," he says. "You have probably seen the statistics—that we devote almost 50 hours of police training to use firearms and about eight hours, if that, to de-escalation techniques."
Recent police shootings and the ensuing public outcry have prompted a degree of change, he says. "As these controversial incidents have unfolded over the last couple years, we have seen a real rush to include de-escalation in the entry level or threshold curriculum for officers. The departments that are really paying attention are recognizing that de-escalation training needs to be ongoing, and it certainly needs to include in-service officers as well."
However, Stamper doesn't believe that lack of appropriate training is the biggest problem. He sees the overall insular culture of policing as even more to blame.
"When there is some kind of a horrific incident in a community, and the police are judged to be at fault," he tells me, "there is a rush to pinpoint training as the culprit. I reject that, personally. I think training is terribly important but insufficient. What really needs to be emphasized is the culture of the organization—which I'm convinced is a product of the structure of the organization."
Stamper's description of this culture is damning: "Military, bureaucratic, insulated, isolated—giving rise to a real strong in-group solidarity among the officers, and that is more powerful than eight hours or even 60 hours of training."
Disturbingly, he adds: "What you will hear from many senior officers is, 'Forget that nonsense that they teach you in the academy, you're in the real world now.'"
A change in attitude is vital both for the safety of the general public and for the safety of officers, he says. "Most police officers have been taught, 'You never back down from a fight; you can never lose a fight; you must always save face; you must always be in control.'" While Stamper thinks these principals have some value, he also argues that they are absolutist and endanger officers and everyone else.
"If we are really interested in officers going home at the end of the shift and not becoming yet another casualty, if we are really interested in improving community-police relations, and—most important of all given the mission of American policing—if we are interested in the protection and preservation of human life as our top priority, we will learn how to de-escalate, we will learn that its not cowardly to take evasive action."
Stamper is particularly disturbed by incidents in which officers shoot at suspects when they could have taken cover to assess the situation. "It's a wonderful definition of 'smart' to duck behind your car if you see someone make a sudden movement with what might be a gun in their hand, rather than firing and learning later."
Stamper's approach would include preparing officers by exposing them to more simulations of potential interactions. "We know what situations lead to police shootings," he says. "We know what situations lead to citizen complaints of rudeness and discourtesy or lack of empathy or lack of compassion and on and on. What we need to do, I think, is to round up as many realistic scenarios as we can and simulate them, preferably under real-world conditions. It should not be done necessarily in a classroom but in a public place that has been rendered safe for such a simulation."
Dr. Jim Nolan is currently an associate professor in the Division of Sociology and Anthropology at West Virginia University. He was formerly an officer with the Wilmington, Delaware, police department for 13 years. There, he worked in community policing and vice before graduating from the FBI academy in 1992. An advocate of drug-policy reform, Nolan co-authored the book The Violence of Hate: Confronting Racism, Anti-Semitism, and Other Forms of Bigotry.
Nolan has applied his own law enforcement experience to other community-policing projects and believes a proactive approach is needed to build trust. "I just finished a project in Delaware," he tells me. "It was a private project where what happened is the officers were assigned to a particular neighborhood [that had experienced problems]."
For each block, block captains were recruited among members of the local community to help the police carry out surveys, Nolan says. "They helped ask questions like, 'Do you get along with your neighbor?' 'Are you willing to intervene if you see kids skipping school?'"
Nolan says that collecting data like this can be used to gauge the quality of the relationship between law enforcement and citizens—but also to improve it. "Through tracking baseline data, we used this as a means of building relationships. [Police officers and community members] were able to meet weekly and say, 'Well, we are making progress; things are getting better; our relationships are growing.'"
Nolan believes that community organizations like these have the capacity to intervene to prevent crime before the police need to step in.
He tells me about one such example, in which residents of Wilmington chose to intervene in a way that de-escalated a local situation—avoiding a potentially lethal drugs raid.
"There was a house that people would come to the community meetings and say, 'Look, there is a house they are selling drugs out of the house people are going in and out of the house we can smell it,'" he says.
"The typical procedure would be to give the information to the drug unit, so the drug unit could see if they could get an informant to go make a buy."
However, the community group took a much more low-key approach, and it paid off. "The states' attorneys who also attended the meetings helped the community group write a letter [to the house in question]." The letter simply stated: "We are aware of these types of behaviors."
"They handed the letter off, and the problem went away," says Nolan. "The goal was to make the problem go away, while building relationships with people."
Patrick Hilsman is an associate editor at the Influence. Follow him on Twitter.