SFPD use-of-force training ’emphasizes’ de-escalation

Reporter tries force options simulator. Photo by Julian Mark

The 911 call: a “transient” loitering in Golden Gate Park, where neighbors have been complaining about narcotics use and noise.

I arrive with a baton, some pepper spray and a firearm. But mostly, I’m supposed to use my words.

I do.

“Sir, you can’t be loitering here,” I say.

“I didn’t do anything — I live here,” he shouts. “I didn’t do anything, just leave me alone.”

 “Let’s sit down and talk about this,” I say.

This goes on for a minute. He then throws his beer bottle to the ground and begins swinging his arms aggressively as if to fight. I use pepper spray, and he falls on the ground.

This enactment was one of 10 or so situations the San Francisco Police Department offered reporters to try earlier this week — part of an effort to give the media a sense of the department’s new use-of-force training put into place in December of last year.

The two biggest changes? One, police officers can no longer shoot a moving vehicle – unless that vehicle is being used as a weapon. Two, the “carotid restraint,” a chokehold that is considered harmful if executed incorrectly, has been restricted.

Now the emphasis is on de-escalation. Officers are trained to establish “rapport,” create “time and distance” and use “active listening” techniques before using force options such as pepper spray, batons or their firearms.

Sergeant Steven T. Pomatto, who teaches use-of-force policy at the San Francisco Police Academy, told an audience of some ten reporters visiting the academy that, in the past, officers used an approach that escalated urgency and sometimes ended with the officer using force.  

“But now it’s more about … talking to that individual and coming to a resolution where we don’t have to use any kind of force,” Pomatto says.

However, he gave a demonstration of a simulation in which he had to use deadly force.

So far, some 850 officers — 40 percent of the force of 2,301 officers — have been trained on the new policy.

The 10 or so videos offering simulated scenarios that Pomatto used on reporters are much the same as earlier training. The difference is in the execution of how officers are trained to handle the scenarios.

“We’ve always used these scenarios, but we’re really emphasizing [de-escalation] now,” said Officer Oliver Reich, who that day was in charge of selecting the scenarios to which reporters had to respond. “I would say it’s heavy on that end.”

Reich said the department has been using these simulations for the 22 years he’s been with the department. Although most of the simulations ended with reporters having to use force, Reich said he pays attention to the language a police officer uses to select a more violent or peaceful outcome. He said recently he’s been choosing de-escalated scenarios more often.

“When I start to hear an officer engage a scenario [using rapport], that tells me that officer hears what’s going on,” Reich said, explaining how to choose outcomes in the simulator.

The scenarios include bar fights, domestic disputes and suicidal subjects. The sequence of events changes, depending on the trainee’s use of de-escalation tactics or force.

The scenarios given to officers are guided situations they’ll likely encounter in one of their police calls.

Top Police Calls for Service for the First 8 Months of 2017

Well-being checks17,705
Mentally disturbed persons11,082
Mental health detentions2,955
Suicidal subjects2,901
Juvenile Beyond Parental Control 281
Mentally Disturbed Person in Crisis 199
Suicidal Subject in Crisis 32

Although I pepper-sprayed the man loitering in Golden Gate Park, Commander Peter Walsh said I handled the situation well.

“If we can talk him down, we’re not going to cite him for drinking in the park — we’re working on our procedural justice,” Walsh said. “But when he starts getting aggressive … you have to think: did de-escalation just fail?”

Pomatto said that the academy does not pay special attention on how to engage with the homeless population. “It’s the amount of resistance you’re getting and how to react to it reasonably,” Pomatto said.

Pomatto noted that each officer’s reaction to a given scenario might be different, depending on their experience and expertise. “I’m more of a time-and-distance guy,” he said.

It’s an attitude the new training is trying to instill in all officers.

De-escalation training was being introduced when former Chief Greg Suhr was still head of the department, and so far there have been some lapses, as well as some wins.

In the case of Luis Gongora Pat, a homeless immigrant living in the Mission who police shot and killed in April 2016 within 30 seconds of officers exiting their vehicles, officers failed to use the time and distance training — and it is possible they had not yet been trained in the tactics.  

That incident was widely seen as a failure of the department’s use-of-force training. Or as David Elliott Lewis, who has worked with officers extensively on de-escalation training and rolling back use of force, said shortly after the Gongora Pat’s shooting: “No, that’s not what we train, and as a trainer I’m disheartened and depressed and dispirited that this happened. I’d like to believe that this is a rare exception.”  

Yet Pomatto said the training is increasingly being integrated on the street. He gave an example of an incident in which an officer in Potrero Hill de-escalated a situation by talking to a suspect for about 40 minutes before eventually arresting him.

In recent weeks, the Mission District has seen a couple of instances in which police used de-escalation tactics to handle individuals in crisis.

“If the training tool is not used correctly, officers get conditioned to use force — whether it’s deadly or not,” Officer Reich said. “As opposed to saying ‘You don’t have to use force all the time — in fact we prefer you don’t use force at all.’”   

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