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San Diego County De-Escalation Training Aims to ‘Slow Down' Crisis Situations

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A de-escalation class being taught to San Diego-area law enforcement agencies could revolutionize use of force tactics nationwide.

The class, San Diego County Regional De-Escalation and Crisis Management (DCM), has been used to train over 3,200 belonging to 23 agencies in the county over the last three years.

If the course could be demonstrated in a simple phrase, it would be “slow down."

“For years we’ve been saying, 'Hurry up, hurry up. Get to the calls, clear the calls, but now we are saying, 'Take your time,' because every life matters," instructor Larry Leiber said.

NBC 7's Dave Summers looks at statistics behind police shootings and how they help steer modern de-escalation training.

The training is based on the findings of a District Attorney study of 439 police shootings with 451 subjects shot between 1993 and 2017.

According to the data, 64% of the incidents occurred within five minutes or less of officers' arrival.

DCM training is an eight-hour class. Instructors run students through a series of confrontation scenarios recorded in a "force option simulator," which provides multiple scenarios and allows trainees to practice techniques.

The training starts with asking the right questions, then assembling the appropriate backup, equipment and strategy. The emphasis is on what you do before using any degree of force.

“It is not in those situations that are life or death, or that split-second decision, it's what's leading up to it. It’s how do we implement those things to create time and space to utilize all these resources we have,” instructor Levi Harbin said.

The results of the DA study speak to officer safety as well. In 12% of incidents, at least one officer was killed or injured.

“Family/domestic disturbance calls have long been among the most dangerous to law enforcement. Similarly, these calls are also one of the most frequent types of incidents that officers responded to just prior to an officer-involved shooting,” the study said.

Twenty-three agencies in San Diego County participate in the training program. Some you might not expect, including the San Diego County Probation Department, all District Attorney investigators and members of the Humane Society to name a few. All law enforcement agencies in San Diego take the training with the exception of the San Diego County Sheriff's Department, which has its own de-escalation training.

Use of force instructors say students are very receptive to the course. This strategy of taking all the burden off of one officer, and instead using a team approach, makes the job less stressful.

Instructors say there is still an element of fear among officers that such strategies could put them in harm’s way. The training, however, doesn’t supersede an officer's right to defend themselves should they be confronted with a deadly threat.

More From the DA Report

The 15-page report revealed a number of things. Perhaps most telling

  • 63% (276) of the 439 cases, there was one officer who fired.
  • 24% of the time, the shooting officer was the only officer present.
  • Over one-third of the incidents occurred immediately upon arrival.
  • Nearly two-thirds happened within five minutes or less.

These stats tell trainers that too few officers are involved in critical incidents where life and death decisions are made in a very short time.

An officer's utility belt has many options from less lethal to deadly force, but attempts to choose the right words and the right degree of force in just a few seconds has had, at times, the worst result.

“[Officers] don’t lose that right to self-defense just because they are wearing a gun and a badge,” District Attorney Chief Investigator Jorge Duran said.

Duran’s input helped craft the course curriculum, and he plays a significant role in determining whether an officer’s use of force amounts to a crime.      

“We can determine there was a valid threat, and the person was acting in self-defense. That’s why it is very rare you don’t see, even across the country, where you have an officer charged,“ Duran said.

The District Attorney’s de-escalation training is focused on the time and planning leading up to the officer’s encounter.

Instructor Levi Harbin said the word de-escalation has a negative connotation to some officers, as if changing tactics would give the upper hand to crime suspects.

“What did you do to put yourself in close proximity to that person? Is there something we could have done leading up to that call that put me 20 feet back talking to this person on a phone? Is there other resources we could have used?" Harbin asks.

“Nobody wants to go out there and take a life, and we are going to have those scars mentally for the rest of our lives,” Leiber said.

Leiber says if de-escalation is about one thing it is taking your time.

Wait for backup. Give each officer specific tasks taking the pressure off of just one person and come up with a plan before the approach.

“The more we can be professional and use these tools the better off we are going to be and that’s my goal, truly, especially with my son in the department now,“ Leiber said.

The director of San Diego's Psychological Emergency Response Team, or PERT, Dr. Mark Marvin said officers are learning skills his clinicians use.

“I challenge officers to try this out and let me know what you find, and they’ll say it is amazing. The job is actually less stressful," Dr.Marvin said.

What you may not know is that PERT has been around for 25 years and in that time the group has always been a part of the de-escalation conversation. Dr. Marvin says PERT had 43,000 clinical contacts within San Diego County last year.

The police shooting study indicates mental health issues are connected to many officer-involved shootings.

“Drugs and/or mental health issues were very common in the subjects. Either some evidence of drug use and/or mental health concerns were present in 79% of the case," the reports states.

“We have been told, "Hey, you literally saved my life.' That is quite a humbling experience,“ Dr. Marvin said.

PERT clinicians support responding officers over the phone, at the scene and offer services, but law enforcement remains responsible for the safety of all involved.

“No one has ever said, 'My gosh that was a wonderful interrogation I had with that officer,' but to have someone say, 'I am kind of surprised, I had a really good conversation with that officer.' So we want the officers to start that lead and kind of go where that pain is,” Dr.Marvin said.

Acting Vice President of the local NAACP and Urban League board member Dr. Robert Lee Brown is also providing his insights into the training.

“It’s incumbent on all of us to be a part of the solution. We are all related. We are all brothers and sisters in this process. We are very pro-police, we want them to be paid more, we want them to be trained more, and they are constantly training. They train all the time. 80% of the black population feels that way," Dr. Brown said.

This de-escalation training class was a collaborative effort county-wide. Creators say almost every agency connected to law enforcement has had their fingerprints on this program. The District Attorney says police shootings are among the most thoroughly reviewed incidents in law enforcement.

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