Tuesday, November 01, 2016
Cop talk: Eight hours of verbal de-escalation training
I figured I’d be the only one in the class who doesn’t have to carry a gun – and potentially use it – to do my job.
Almost everyone taking a recent eight-hour verbal de-escalation training class in San Antonio was a commissioned peace officer. Most of the pupils were men; a handful were in plainclothes, about 15 donning beige Texas Department of Public Safety uniforms and roughly 10 more wearing other law enforcement uniforms or department shirts.
I took a seat near the beverage station and a heaping tray of donuts, next to a couple of administrative assistants who said they’d been “voluntold” to attend.
I was there to learn firsthand what law enforcement learn about de-escalation. The topic comes up often in my reporting for Point of Impact, a yearlong series investigating officer-involved shootings of unarmed people in Texas.
It was easy enough to sign up for the class online, but in a world where the media has been blamed for inciting violence against law enforcement and is often criticized for its coverage of police shootings, I expected some might be displeased I was there.
I’d hoped to be inconspicuous and left my home in Austin two hours early. San Antonio’s traffic crushed that hope, exposing the belated entrance of the lone journalist into a room full of officers.
Bob Christy, a regional training director for the Texas Police Association, trudged over with the attendance list and a course packet. I signed in next to my name and affiliation – UT Austin, where I’m a graduate student – and tried to disappear into my desk chair.
Despite having the least amount of experience with the use-of-force continuum, I found myself immediately more engaged than many of my classmates. The instructor even had to ask one man to put away his cellphone for a little bit.
During the first of many breaks – officers can only tolerate an hour of sitting still at a time, I learned – the instructor, J. Mark Warren, told me it’s common for officers to discount the importance of the course at the start, but ensured their enthusiasm would grow.
I introduced myself as a journalist to Warren, explaining that I’d paid the $70 non-TPA-member fee and then braced for the expected request to leave.
But he was happy to have me there. I took a deep breath and settled in to learn how law enforcement can use words and body language to diffuse a situation. A 19-year veteran of DPS’ training academy, Warren spent more than a dozen years teaching a communications course called “Verbal Judo.”
Everything a police officer does involves communication, and Warren is a die-hard believer that good policing requires good communication skills.
Repeatedly throughout the day, Warren reiterated that the course material wasn’t applicable in violent encounters - "You know how to deal with those," he said. Instead, the methods apply to the 90 percent of contacts who aren't violent.
We learned how to better communicate with people who are compliant but might "fail the attitude test," which Warren said legally does not justify escalation. We also learned how different types of people react to stressful situations, and what might work best in interactions with each personality.
Warren taught us tips to identify a person's ego state - parent, adult or child – so we could best communicate with them, and we practiced those skills in pairs. Ideal is the adult state, the only frame of mind in which individuals are capable of making independent, unbiased decisions. Parent ego states are authoritarian and lead to conflict and child states are selfish and short-sighted.
During one exercise, Warren instructed students to face another student and stand casually with our hands on our hips. "Easy," I thought, looking around only to realize it’s impossible for a trooper wearing his duty belt to look casual with one hand on his hip holster.
The point was the importance of body language: “Even if you’re just trying to be casual, you’re going to come across as defensive,” Warren later explained.
Sure enough, my fellow classmates did become engaged, interested and took notes, even when Warren mentioned the Police Executive Research Forum, whose recommendations on de-escalation have been met with mixed reviews from some in law enforcement.
One point of contention among the law enforcement community is with a staple of PERF’s 30 guiding principles on use of force. The agency would like to retire the “21-foot rule,” a practice that permits officers to shoot someone armed with an edged weapon who gets too close, because PERF says the rule sometimes wrongly justifies shootings. Warren disagrees.
But he supports another PERF guideline – that de-escalation training should be a core theme of an agency's training program. At least at DPS, the methods are now a core theme of one day in the classroom.
That wasn’t the case before July 2015, when a DPS trooper stopped Sandra Bland for a traffic violation. She was arrested and died in a Waller County jail cell three days later. The trooper responsible was indicted and fired from DPS, and Bland’s relatives sued him and others for her death.
When the case settled for $1.9 million in September, it was reported that de-escalation would now be required for all troopers in the field. DPS said at the time that the class was already required.
Warren’s timeline backs that up: He was tapped by TPA to teach the course starting last December, and has since trained about 700 officers, most of whom were DPS troopers and leadership. At my training, a few plainclothes officers were DPS brass, Warren said, and one was another jurisdiction’s chief.
As someone who lacks the rest of the training that Texas law enforcement receives, I felt unworthy of the completion certificate. It’s impossible to master, after one day, how to verbally communicate with a myriad of people who react in a variety of ways under stress.
DPS has also said that new officers will start to receive verbal de-escalation training in the academy. But aren’t the new officers too busy cramming for the state exam to study verbal communication, which isn’t tested?
Maybe at this point, the emphasis on verbal de-escalation is more of a symbolic first step.
“This is only the beginning,” Warren said. “History and current events being what they are, there’s never been a value on verbal de-escalation like there is now.”