For the last seven years, the Cortland Police Department has mandated their officers take a 40-hour training course that teaches them how to handle someone during a mental health crisis, which has managed to reduce the use of force by the department’s officers by 20 percent.
In a similar effort to reduce the use of force in certain situations, the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office (TCSO) and the Ithaca Police Department (IPD) have been examining training courses they could implement that would emphasize using less force and de-escalation tactics. The topic that has been at the forefront of community policing over the last several years, but especially locally since anger has arisen over the arrests of Rose De Groat and Cadji Ferguson on the Ithaca Commons in April.
While Tompkins County Sheriff Derrick Osborne has only been in his position since January, he has been keeping an eye on numerous types of training that are available for handling disputes. But it starts, he said, with a pre-hiring screening process that helps them determine if a person’s temperament is right for policing in Tompkins County.
“We do a lot of things to prevent unnecessary use of force incidences, right from the hiring process,” Osborne said. “We do a very, very thorough background investigation, trying to identify anything in that person’s background that may lead us to believe they have violent tendencies or perhaps don’t have skills in the area of de-escalation or things of that nature. When they do go to the police academy, they do have extensive training there in handling crimes in progress, where you have to do role-playing and interact with people in a variety of situations so the instructors can see how the person handles that.”
Osborne has implemented certain training regimens already, with several courses being offered to officers later this year. Those sessions are designed to teach officers about a variety of situations, though Osborne has seen in studies that citizens with mental health issues are more likely to be involved in incidents that require force from officers. It’s this area in particular that Osborne has concentrated on.
“We’ve put on a mental health and first aid course with the National Council for Behavioral Health for our deputies, that went over very well,” Osborne said, adding that they will soon send officers for emotional crisis situations. “ That’s put on through the Office of Mental Health and in the works, right now, we’re just setting a date for this training and organizing it, we are going to be holding realistic de-escalation training. That’s through the FORTH (Foundation for Research and Technology) Science Institute and Fair and Impartial Policing.”
During these training sessions, deputies learn how to recognize signs of mental health problems or other emotional distress. Once deputies recognize the signs, they find ways to interact with that person to de-escalate the situation. Though Osborne said he can’t promise this training would be done annually, he’d like to see it frequent enough that it becomes an important tool for deputies to learn.
Acting Ithaca Police Chief Dennis Nayor echoed some of Osborne’s points, saying that an officer’s background is always thoroughly evaluated before they are hired. However, Nayor abides by the policing principles of Sir Robert Peel, a British lawman who developed an outline on police force. In situations involving the use of force, he looks to the fourth and sixth principles: that cooperation should be prioritized over compulsion, and to use physical force only as a final option after “persuasion, advice and warning.”
Chief Nayor described some of the methods officers already use to keep tension to a minimum.
“In law enforcement, we respond to the situation and a lot of situations go extremely well,” Chief Nayor said. “Currently, sometimes when there is any issue that force is used, even though it’s justified and appropriate to the situation, that seems to get the attention and it’s just the times that we’re in. We work extremely hard to make sure officers are trained in proper verbal skills and de-escalation, their defensive tactics skills are current and using the best practices.”
Officers have been undergoing a refresher course of training on defensive tactics training, which has become a priority for the police department. The officers also work on cultural competency training to better understand how to deal with all segments of the population. The entire department has had to undergo implicit bias training, which is a factor of the police academies IPD officers are sent to. In one instance, IPD officers responded to a parolee who said he wouldn’t go peacefully. However, things took a different turn. It served as an example, he said, of how a situation like that can unfold ideally.
“We were called to the scene of a parolee who was adamant that he was going to fight and that he was not going to get arrested peacefully,” Nayor said. “It was going to be a challenge. But the officers spent about 20 minutes talking to the person, defusing, listening, showing compassion, de-escalating and he went peacefully. He told the officers that he did so because he appreciated their respect.”