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Cyndi Grace served in law enforcement in Virginia for 12 years. She now resides in Maryland. This column was originally published by The Baltimore Sun.
When I watched the video of Philadelphia police fatally shooting Walter Wallace Jr., as he apparently experienced a mental health crisis, I asked myself: What other options did the officers have? Were they able to maintain distance and safety? Did they have time to allow Wallace to pace in an agitated state, but not threaten the lives of those around him?
As a former officer myself, I am realistic in my consideration of what options officers can utilize in these scenarios.
While in the police academy in the late 1990s, I was trained every day, for six months, on defensive tactics. It was ingrained in us how to force compliance utilizing physical de-escalation tactics. We were trained on how to gain and maintain control of a situation and the people involved. We were trained to act, to do something, with adrenaline rushing through our veins. We were trained to command and control; we were not trained to communicate. Little time was spent on the art of verbal de-escalation in highly charged, potentially life or death situations. And from what I understand, that’s still largely the case.
Officers are not typically held in high regard for de-escalating situations verbally. Officers are respected for their willingness and ability to force compliance with physical tactics. And the muscle memory most officers have is with physical de-escalation: defensive tactics, drawing weapons from their holsters, pointing and shooting. But our muscle memory could be to think and communicate in these situations — with the right training and a department-wide emphasis on the value of such an approach.
When officers are trained to think before acting, officers can then begin to handle situations where a person is having a mental health crisis or emotional disturbance with compassion and empathy. Imagine if, instead of commanding an upset person to calm down, an officer allowed them the space to yell and scream as they struggle to control their out-of-control emotions. If officers were given as much training in verbal de-escalation as defensive tactics, we might avoid more scenarios like that involving Walter Wallace Jr.
Officers are capable of handling high stress, life or death situations without firing their weapons or even pulling them. We routinely attend firearms training: shoot/don’t shoot scenarios. Why not attend training in which firearms are not an option? Why not bring in role players to scream at officers? Make threatening statements? Why not role play real life scenarios in which our only option is to think and de-escalate the situation verbally? This is a skill that must be taught and practiced. Officers are typically required to requalify with their firearms every year. Why aren’t officers required to train and retrain using our minds and voices to de-escalate high stress situations?
While it is important to have less lethal options available such as a Taser or bean bag shotguns, it is even more imperative that officers are trained to communicate, not solely command. I am not advocating for an officer to approach a person empty-handed and attempt to remove a knife, or asking an officer to attempt to rationalize with a person having a mental health crisis. Rationalizing with an irrational mind will likely only lead to a more highly charged situation. I am advocating that they be taught to communicate and judge when a person needs room to wind down without having orders barked at them.
Some situations evolve so rapidly, so violently, that there is no other option but to fire your weapon in self-defense. I am not speaking about those situations, where an officer is in fear for their life. There are shootings however, that may be avoided with attempts to communicate and de-escalate verbally. Officers must be trained that there are situations when time, patience and maintaining safe distance is not only an acceptable response, but a highly respected one. It is imperative this change in police culture and training begins now.