This article focuses on a police officer who had just completed training in how to de-escalate an encounter with a mentally ill citizen, and just three days later found himself face-to-face with a mentally ill woman with a gun (and her toddler with a sippy cup).
De-escalation training gives cops better tools than AR-15s, and more options. But that’s only a start.
A different cop (reflecting on the events described in the story) says: “They put things on us that should not be related to law enforcement, and then when you screw up because you’re not a specialist, you’re held accountable. I’m a meathead. I feel like if they care enough to send us to those [mental health] calls a few times a day, they should allocate money for someone that’s an expert.”
Here’s a bit about the training:
Three days earlier, Parker had been in one of the first classes in a training program Huntsville was rolling out to prepare senior officers for a moment just like this. He’d shown up early and chosen a seat at the head of a windowless police academy classroom in front of 9 other officers, all of whom looked like they had been sent to the principal’s office.
The teacher, Johnny Hollingsworth, wasn’t surprised by the gloomy faces. He had once fallen asleep during in-service trainings like these himself, but his outlook had been changed by 14 years as a crisis negotiator. “The theme of today’s class is how you listen. It ain’t about how you talk, it’s how you listen,” he said.
This class was Huntsville’s response to a problem that’s been growing across the country, with departments nationwide fielding more mental health calls as funding for psychiatric services has been slashed. These calls are among the most likely to end in violence, and that’s been especially true in Alabama, where police have fatally shot at least 26 mentally ill people since 2015, according to a Washington Post database of police shootings. Four of those shootings happened in Huntsville, including one that left an officer charged with murder, and they account for half of all fatal police shootings in the city.
Hoping to reduce these killings, police departments have invested millions of dollars in teaching officers techniques intended to safely de-escalate mental health calls. Such classes are at the heart of President Trump’s June executive order on police reform, which he said would “make sure that our police are well trained. Perfectly trained.”
It’s unclear how effective the training is. Researchers have found some reduction in arrests of mentally ill people before and after the training, but no difference in actual use-of-force incidents. Officers with the training have been credited with talking people out of suicide attempts. On the other hand, all four of the Minneapolis officers involved in the killing of George Floyd had received the training, and professional organizations including the American Psychiatric Association say the better way is to send specialists to mental health calls, with police limited to a backup role.
Expanding mental health services is expensive, though, so training remains the favored response, including in Huntsville, which spends $51 million a year on police and $800,000 on behavioral health programs. For the men slumped in the windowless classroom, it felt like the nationwide push for a new kind of cop had finally caught up with them. “We’ve known this crap’s been coming for years,” Parker said.
Here’s the aftermath of the encounter, which involved more than one incident — after the first incident the officer walked away, not having seen anything he could act on. He was called back later as the situation developed, but it ended without violence.
Parker saw how the struggle would go, like it had gone for him so many times on these calls. Ivy getting bounced off the concrete when he tackled her. Her limbs twisting and bruising as he wrestled her into handcuffs. And then a forced walk out to the street.
But as he turned back toward Ivy, tensed for the fight, there was more thunder, loud and cracking and directly overhead, and it began to pour. The courtyard cleared instantly. Ivy broke off talking. They were all getting wet. Parker paused as Fountain urged Ivy once more to go to the hospital, and this time, her red T-shirt soaked, her wet hair hanging in her face, she dropped her hands to her sides. “Okay,” she said, looking at the ground.
Parker stood by the ambulance as paramedics strapped her onto a stretcher. He waited until the door closed, then he walked back toward his cruiser, and in the continuing downpour the call came to an end with no viral videos, no protests breaking out in Huntsville and then across the country, no news conferences, no murder charges, no lives ruined. Just a call that because of a rainstorm wound up working out, leaving Parker soaking wet and laughing uncontrollably as he said to Fountain, “Dude, I really envisioned her grabbing the gun. I was like ‘We’re gonna smoke this woman. It’s gonna happen.’ ” But it didn’t.
“I’m a meathead,” the officer said. “I feel like if they care enough to send us to those calls a few times a day, they should allocate money for someone that’s an expert.”
“That’s exactly how it should be,” Parker said. “One class is not enough.”
As they kept talking, another group of officers was reporting to the windowless classroom for their de-escalation training, learning about steepling their hands over their hearts, and hearing Hollingsworth recall how he’d been at a Black Lives Matter protest the other day and had used these techniques so effectively that young protesters who still had welts on their bodies from rubber bullets had thanked him and shaken his hand and said that what the department needed was more officers like him.
“Okay,” Parker said.
“All right,” the other officer said. “I got protecting and serving to do.”
Powerful reporting from The Washington Post.