Behind the scenes with Phoenix police de-escalation trainingPosted: Updated:
At a time when law enforcement's under more scrutiny than ever before, the Phoenix Police Department is arming every officer with de-escalation training.
They were one of the first agencies in the country to adopt specific training to defuse deadly encounters.
U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch was just in town to see this special training firsthand.
So what does it mean?
Every Phoenix officer, from new recruits on up to the highest ranks, gets post-academy, de-escalation training, hands-on use of force tactical scenarios in addition to a four-hour classroom block.
Each officer is run through three drills based on real cases Phoenix officers have had to encounter that test deadly use of force in everyday patrol calls.
“A lot of times, it's the calls you become complacent on that turn into very deadly encounters,” said Phoenix training Sgt. Mark Heimall.
He works with officers, teaching them the importance of maintaining control, that whenever possible, you slow the scene, kind of press pause, to think of the best and safest tactics.
“We want to put cover between us and our subject and then we get 'em talking,” Heimall said, recapping one drill that walks officers through an encounter with a suicidal suspect with a gun to his head.
The idea is, when you can, wait it out, and wait for backup.
The most critical tool is often communication.
“It's kinda that crisis intervention mode. Like, ‘Hey- why are you doing this? Why do you want to hurt yourself? Do you have kids?’ We try to find something that's gonna snag 'em,” Heimall said.
De-escalation is also about teaching officers not to walk into danger when no one else is at risk.
In January 2013, Phoenix police shot a man who tried running them down with his car.
Vincent Jimenez, 35, died in his driveway.
And while the circumstances presented a deadly threat, training sergeants say there are less lethal options officers can engage in.
Another drill officers are running though is having to get a man passed out behind a store to get off the property.
The suspect is refusing to put down a big rock.
“We see it all the time, and you know, when someone's trying to throw a rock at you to harm you, the best course of action is to move, not necessarily to shoot,” Heimall said.
Sometimes, a suspect is armed and intent on hurting police or innocent people.
I went through the same drills and had less than a minute to decide what to do as a man violating a protection order yelled, “I’m gonna go inside and kill this woman!" He grabbed a rifle from the trunk of his car.
I shot him in the back as he turned toward the house.
Training Sgt. Mark Heimall said some new recruits won't take that shot.
"They say, ‘Well, I hesitated because of what the ‘headline test’ was gonna be, so that’s what we’re dealing with now,” Heimall said.
Headlines blasted over social media have some cops hesitating, something they can’t afford when seconds can mean the difference between life and death.
And then there are cell phone cameras, the dash cams, and body cams, which all Phoenix officers should have by 2019.
So police are now being taught to act as if they're always being recorded.
And the perception of police in south Phoenix should give you an idea of what officers are up against on patrol.
“They roll through here like four to five times a day," says one man, rocking on his porch. “Some I would trust. Others, I would not."
"I don't think they have enough training," said neighbor Tommy Lee Flannigan.
“They don't know what's gonna happen. So they shoot before they get shot!” said another man at the corner shop.
Year to date, Phoenix police have been involved in 13 shootings. Nine were fatal, with eight suspects dead and one officer killed.
“The reality is if you look at Phoenix as a whole, minimum 10 to 50 times a day, officers have their guns pointed at people. We don't get into that many shootings a day,” Sgt. Derek Elmore said.
Elmore says Phoenix police are safer because of this training focusing on tactics to use the least amount of force necessary.
They are re-wiring officers’ responses through repetitive drills, so communication and de-escalation become instinct and second nature in saving lives.
Other departments across the valley, like Mesa, Tempe and Glendale offer variations of this training.
Phoenix is the only department being tapped to train other agencies. After the Attorney General’s visit, they'll head to California and the Midwest this fall.
Minority recruiting to bridge the divide
The other big part of bridging the divide is having a force that represents the community they police and for Phoenix police, recruiting is their next benchmark for building trust.
Phoenix’s new chief of police Jeri Williams will start in October and right out the gate, she is focused on building better relationships in the neighborhoods her officers patrol.
“We’re looking for the community to bring us folks who want to be police officers even though it’s really challenging to be a police officer. The young officers today have a lot more challenges than I faced before,” said Williams.
She knows de-escalating deadly encounters isn’t black and white training.
Every day, officers have to make split-second decisions and talk down violent or suicidal suspects. High, mentally ill, irate or irrational, they see it all.
And because they're so short-staffed, down 562 officers, Phoenix police don’t have the luxury of partnering up on patrol.
“You see all the police cars running up and down the street, they all white! Where are the black police?” asked Phoenix homeowner Larry McConnell.
There were only three black officers in this particular class of new recruits we observed.
Of the 121 officers going through academy right now, 64 percent are white, 25 percent Hispanic, 7 percent black, 3 percent Asian and 1 percent Native American.
Compare that to the latest census breakdown and Hispanics in Phoenix are under-represented almost two to one.
"I’ve been pulled over felony stops for 'driving while black.' I’ve had those instances happen to me," Sgt. Elmore said.
He signed up to be a cop and make a difference after seeing the Rodney King riots while growing up in Los Angeles.
"Hopefully, this builds trust in the community," Elmore said.
He’s seen the struggle, having personally worked in recruiting in this profession under fire. And he knows getting that perfect race ratio representative of our community won’t happen overnight.
“We are doing everything we can!” he said.
As Phoenix police prepares to graduate its first batch of new recruits after a seven-year hiring freeze, city leaders are hopeful more people will step up to serve as the department seeks to better mirror the community they serve.
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