The Camden County Police Department is one of a handful of departments in the country that has been a test site for retraining police officers to take more time to gauge a situation before pulling out a weapon, especially when faced with an unarmed person or one with a mental illness.
The main goal of the retraining initiative, which began a year ago, is to lower the number of incidents of deadly force, saving lives of citizens and police officers.
But there also is a business argument to be made for the retraining. Simply put, it saves money.
“Going back to 2014, the Camden County Police Department has settled two cases in respect to excessive violence that totaled $50,000. And none of these cases were filed after the advent of guardian ethics training and the implementation of body-worn cameras,” said Camden County spokesman Dan Keashen.
U.S. Attorney General William Fitzpatrick likened police chiefs to CEOs, who have to figure out a way to provide a product without sky-high costs — including lawsuits tied to police-involved shootings or other cases of excessive force.
“Police chiefs and police executives are running departments like CEOs, like they are running a business,” Fitzpatrick said. “But their mission is a little bit different. Their mission is safety, their mission is to protect and serve their brothers and sisters and the community. They are supplying a product, like any business or executive, but their product is public safety. So there’s a little bit of a different dynamic.”
Camden Chief Scott Thomson said that, since the department began retraining, Camden has seen a 30 percent reduction in the use of force and more than a third reduction in allegations of excessive force by officers from residents.
“That will also correlate to less liability risk for taxpayers, less injuries and time lost from officers off duty,” Thomson said. “Generally, (in use-of-force situations), some injury occurs to the officer, so that affects absentee rates. There is a cost benefit to having this type of de-escalation training and culture.”
The officer involved in the recent Minneapolis shooting, Mohammad Noor, allegedly told friends he felt as if his life was in danger before he shot a single fatal round into Justine Damond’s abdomen.
If his reasoning sounds familiar, it should. It is the defense used by most officers involved in the controversial shootings of the past few years.
It is based on a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court case that established police officers have as much a right to protect themselves as an average citizen if they feel their life is in danger.
Ironically, that case was based on excessive force used on an unarmed, diabetic man.
The problems police departments around the country are now facing stem from such instances, when police are involved in an encounter with an unarmed person.
The new training, ICAT — or Integrating Communications, Assessments and Tactics — was created by the Police Executive Research Forum in early 2016 in collaboration with the New York Police Department.
At a recent training conference in New Jersey, which included a presentation from PERF and officers from as far away as Baltimore and Toronto, departments that have used the new training said they are seeing an improvement in relations with the community.
Sgt. Scott Swenson of the Baltimore Police Department, who remembers the riots that broke out in 2015 following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, said the incident set the tone for reform in the department.
“Since 2015, which was a very hard year for us, the only good byproduct was that training has improved exponentially,” Swenson said.
In the past year, 1,200 officers in Baltimore have been trained in de-escalation.
As a result, use-of-force complaints are down 40 percent, Swenson said.
“That’s 40 percent less chance of getting sued, 40 percent less chance of getting hurt,” he said.
“Police for a long time have had to deal with societal failures on all fronts. Failures of the mental health system, failures of the educational system, failures of socioeconomic policies and issues. There’s been things breaking down for a long time. The last riots we had were in 1968, so, 47 years between those kinds of riots, but the problems are still there. Nothing good came out of rioting, but we did get better training out of it. We are getting back to the basics, which is good.”
New Jersey Attorney General Christopher Porrino has mandated more training in the state for officers, which can take lessons that used to be two days and make them as long as two weeks.
There are critics in departments around the state, however, who believe the training is simply an extra administrative burden because many of the basic principles taught in the de-escalation training are already being used.
Swenson has a word of caution for those naysayers.
“Anyone will always be critical of change. It’s human nature. We looked at it initially and said we are already doing this,” he said.
But, after going through the training, Baltimore police realized there was a difference.
“Any good officer is going to have that piece of humble pie every day and ask ‘How can I get better?’ ” Swenson said.
Porrino, who attended the training in New Jersey along with Fitzpatrick, said the mandate for more training hours for officers is geared to improving community relations.
“When trust is there, people aren’t as nervous, interactions aren’t as charged and they are less likely to escalate,” Porrino said.
Chuck Wexler, executive director of PERF, said that the de-escalation training is especially useful when facing unarmed and mentally ill residents.
He used the example of police in the United Kingdom who aren’t armed with firearms. You rarely hear of people in the U.K. getting shot, with the exception of terrorists, Wexler said.
So, how do they deal with people with knives or rocks or other projectiles?
“We don’t have a monopoly on mentally ill people. Our mentally ill people are not more violent than theirs. It’s very similar,” Wexler said.
Yet, a mentally ill person in Detroit and a mentally ill person in Glasgow, which is the knife capital of Europe, often face different fates.
The U.K. officers are trained better in communicating with the person, Wexler said.
“He doesn’t have an ‘If all goes wrong, I’ll just shoot him’ (option),” Wexler said. “He doesn’t have a gun, so he has to figure it out.”
The solution is one that doesn’t require extra resources, nor specialized or SWAT teams, and can be applied to any size department across the country, Wexler said. “We’re trying to get more than hostage negotiators to understand communication.”
Roughly 90 percent of the 18,000 departments in the country are 50 officers or less.
With a better-trained police force and better communication with the communities, law enforcement officials are hopeful the number of bad headlines will shrink.
Porrino said, “The solution, ultimately, when we get to Utopia, is that the police and our communities are sufficiently educated and trained to avoid these situations where fear exists and tempers escalate and violence occurs when it doesn’t otherwise have to.”