De-escalation: Here’s how Yakima police officers are doing it

'What people really want from the police is respect'

YAKIMA, Wash. — After the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, local youth activists organized protests across the city and asked the Yakima Police Department to make several changes, including providing officers with de-escalation training.

This month, YPD has done just that, bringing in Tyrone Campbell, the executive director of CallBox Training, to teach officers, civilian staff and jail employees how to use “Deliberate De-escalation.”

“We have a true desire to do a better job,” Yakima Police Chief Matthew Murray said. “We want to do a better job for the right reasons and it’s really important.”

On Jan. 8, Campbell taught about half the YPD staff in an 8-hour lecture and scenario-based training held at Stone Church in Yakima, which allowed participants to comply with COVID-19 restrictions and maintain social distancing. The other half of the staff attended training Friday.

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Community leaders, including Rev. Donald Davis Jr., were invited to participate in the event. Murray said he wanted to promote transparency and mutual respect by inviting community stakeholders to the training.

“It was very good to see the interaction and the answers and questions that they were asking,” Davis Jr. said. “It was all relative to the training and how they can better themselves in reacting with the community.”

Davis Jr. helped local youth organize their protests last summer in response to George Floyd’s death and assisted them in developing their list of requests for YPD. He said as he’s gotten to know police in Yakima, he’s found them to be welcoming, open and adamant about their desire to receive this training.

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Rev. Donald Davis Jr. speaks to KAPP-KVEW about his experiences while participating in the “Deliberate De-escalation” training with the Yakima Police Department.

Describing his experience during civil rights marches in the 1960s, Davis Jr. said he can see now that times are changing.

“What’s happening now is Dr. King’s dream is coming to reality,” Davis Jr. said. “It’s time for us to get behind it and be ahead of it; the Yakima Police Department is ahead of it.”

Davis Jr. said he’s working to get federal funding from the U.S. Department of Justice to bring the training back again — this time for community members and police to take together.

Contrary to previous models of de-escalation that provided officers with a set procedure to use during crisis situations, the “Deliberate De-escalation” program focuses on teaching police officers active listening and communication skills to use in their everyday policing.

“What we’ve done in the past is we’ve given officers a tool and the problem with giving them a tool is that tool sometimes isn’t the right tool for the job,” Campbell said.

Instead of having just one tool — a rigid procedure to follow solely in crisis situations — Campbell said he teaches officers to be carpenters, giving them the communication, self-reflection and interpersonal skills they need to be consistent and effective in de-escalating tense situations.

“If you’re talking to somebody and they’re at a 7 and they go to a 6 when you start talking to them, that’s de-escalation,” Campbell said. “If you’re talking to someone and they’re at a 7 and they start to go to an 8 or a 9, that’s escalation … Non-escalation is exactly what it sounds like: how do I not make this situation worse?”’

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Yakima Police Department staff receive “Deliberate De-escalation” training Friday, Jan. 22 at Stone Church in Yakima.

Some principles of the training are fairly self-explanatory, such as changing the way officers greet people.

“I always start every single interaction with the same thing: Good morning. Good afternoon. Good evening,” Murray said. “It’s such a different approach. It sounds like such a little thing, but it’s a big thing.”

Back in the day, Murray said officers’ responses to calls about a missing garden hose, for example, were met with a bit of exasperation.

Despite having no cameras, witnesses, suspects or other actionable information or evidence, the callers would still want to talk to a police officer. Murray said officers would often approach the situation asking the person, “What do you want me to do about it?” — a question likely to make the situation worse.

“The things I say and do and act and how I respond can have a humongous difference, not only in the outcome of the situation, but in the way you feel about the police,” Murray said.

Murray gave this example:

“If you’re late for work and a moving truck is blocking your car, and you’re escalated, the last thing you want when you get to work is to have your boss yell at you, without even asking, ‘What happened? What’s the situation?’ It may not change the fact that you’re late for work and he’s got to deal with it, but what you want is voice and you want empathy and you want somebody to listen to what it is you have to say, which means take the temperature down a couple notches, let’s have a conversation.”

While it might not change the outcome — your boss still may have to discipline you — Murray said you might thank them for listening to you and taking the time to understand how you got there; it’s the same concept with de-escalating a situation as a police officer.

“When you do this well, you often have people thank you when you take them to jail, which is surprising,” Murray said. “What people really want from the police is respect.”

One of the reasons extra training, especially in de-escalation, is so important is because of the high standard by which all police officers are judged, Campbell said.

In Washington state, police officers are required to complete 720 hours of training at the Basic Law Enforcement Academy, which is spread over 4.5 months. In contrast, cosmetologists are required to complete more than twice that amount — 1,600 hours — to get a cosmetology license.

Campbell said once an officer leaves the academy, the amount and quality of continued training they receive depends heavily on the size and budget of the city or county in which they work.

De Escalation Ypd Handout

An excerpt from the “Deliberate De-escalation” student handbook explains the definition of de-escalation.

While all Yakima police officers receive at least one full day of continued training every month, Murray said trainings like the one taught by Campbell are infrequent and invaluable.

For older officers, the training gives them a chance to reflect on their experiences in policing and start trying to unlearn any patterns held over from when they started in their law enforcement career that do not align with current standards.

Campbell said newer officers benefit from learning interpersonal communication skills the younger, “texting” generation lacks, which helps them to start their careers with the right set of tools.

“If we could handle de-escalation via phone, we’d have some of the most amazing interactions across this country with our young police officers, but that’s not the case,” Campbell said. “We have to deal with those people in person.”

One principle Campbell teaches officers is they have to control themselves before they can think about controlling other people or controlling a situation. They need to know who they are, how they react to stress and why they react that way; they need to know how their culture, their life experiences and implicit biases may affect how they interact with others.

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CallBox Training Executive Director Tyrone Campbell speaks to YPD officers Friday morning at Stone Church in Yakima.

During the training Friday, Campbell asked officers to raise their hands if they grew up in a quiet house and again if they grew up in a loud house — most officers said they grew up in a loud house.

Campbell said if they grew up in a quiet house and responded to a scene with a loud house, they might be alarmed at the noise and assume there’s some sort of confrontation going on, while someone who grew up in a loud house may approach the scene as if everything was normal.

Conversely, someone who grew up in a loud house and finds themselves at a scene where the house is quiet, may be suspicious and wonder what the people may be hiding; someone from a quiet house may not think twice about the lack of noise, because that’s how they grew up.

Campbell said examples like those make officers think about what their personal experiences are bringing into a situation. Once officers begin to think critically about themselves and identify any implicit biases they need to be aware of, they can move on to trying to diffuse a situation.

De-escalation is often intertwined with conversations about use of force; by calming things down, slowing down the situation and keeping their space, officers are supposed to be able to keep the situation from getting to the point where they would have to even think about using force.

“De-escalation is about not having to use force, right?” Campbell said. “It’s about using time, distance, shielding. It’s about putting those things in place.”

However, Campbell said de-escalation is just as useful during custody exchanges, mental health calls and traffic stops — and should be used during all those situations and more.

What does the person want?

What happened to them?

Why are they feeling this way?

These are all questions Campbell said officers should be asking. Even when the outcome of a situation is fairly certain — there are incidents where jail or prison time is unavoidable — by asking those questions, officers can control one thing: they can make people feel respected.

It was the respect of a man Campbell helped to arrest that led him down the path of teaching “Deliberate De-escalation.” Listen to the full story below.

Campbell said his program not only works, but sticks; officers continue to use it long after he gets on a plane and goes home. He said they stick with it because he makes them understand how it can help keep them safe.

“Deliberate De-escalation” addresses four types of officer safety: physical safety, emotional safety, legal safety and financial safety.

De-escalation addresses physical safety by preventing most situations from rising to the level of violence. It addresses emotional safety by improving relationships with the community, which can make officers worry less about their own safety when out in public.

It can also improve an officer’s interpersonal relationships; in one exercise, Campbell may ask officers what cultural groups they belong to outside of race, religion and politics. Many can’t think of anything else — except that they’re a good police officer.

Campbell said while it’s great to be a good police officer, that can’t be all that there is for a person; eventually they’ll have to retire and that won’t be a part of their identity anymore. He said people need something more in their lives or they’ll get burned out.

“It doesn’t do you any good to do this job for 20 years or 10 years or 30 years if you can’t maintain a relationship and nobody wants to be around you and the dog runs from you when you come home,” Campbell said. “That’s emotional safety: How do you keep yourself so that you can last in this profession?”

De-escalation addresses legal safety by preventing officers from getting into situations that might end in a lawsuit. Preventing potential lawsuits is also good for financial safety, as an officer may have trouble providing for their family if they’re having to deal with legal fees.

“When you actually break it out into those things, the officers go, ‘I get it,'” Campbell said. “They have a vested interest because you’re putting it into terms that they understand.”

Campbell said while it’s clear the program works, it’s often hard to measure in numbers; since a large part of de-escalation is about preventing negative situations, it’s working effectively when nothing is happening.

“How do you measure something that didn’t happen?” Campbell said.

Murray said hopefully, the police department will see fewer complaints and incidents requiring discipline, more positive community feedback, some decline in crime and more calls for service and crime tips as people begin to trust the police more.

However, the most telling measure is one people outside of the department will have difficulty seeing: how officers’ everyday interactions with community members change for the better.

Despite the widespread applicability of de-escalation, it has its limits. Both Murray and Campbell agree that while it can help prevent a bad situation from getting worse, there are times when it just won’t work and use of force is necessary.

“There are situations you cannot de-escalate,” Murray said. “People say to us, ‘Well, why don’t you have a continuum of force?’ Because sometimes you get out of the car and within two seconds, you’re at a shooting.”

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Yakima Police Chief Matthew Murray speaks to KAPP-KVEW about de-escalation training.

In the past year, starting even before the death of George Floyd, Murray has worked to do a complete overhaul of YPD’s use of force policies. Part of that process was comparing those policies to the 30 guiding principles on use of force established by the Police Executive Research Forum.

“The product of that work was an extensive reform of YPD policies, an enormous improvement in transparency, new requirements on reporting and evaluating use of force, and a commitment to new training for officers and other police employees,” police said in a news release Wednesday.

Out of the 30 guiding principles, YPD adopted 27; the changes were presented on Sept. 15, 2020 at a Yakima City Council meeting. One of those changes, sparked by community concern regarding Floyd’s death, was banning the use of the carotid control technique, which Murray said was improperly applied in Floyd’s case.

“I do want to warn you; there are unintended consequences for all these things,” Murray said. “A carotid hold, when applied properly, is a very effective technique and it is less lethal — meaning you are less likely to kill somebody.”

Murray said in a situation where officers would have been able to apply a carotid hold, they now will have to turn to other uses of force that could be more dangerous for the person they are trying to take into custody.

“Force isn’t pretty,” Murray said. “But just because you see force, doesn’t mean it’s wrong.”

Murray said people need to know the context of the situation: an officer may have to use force on a kidnapping suspect who’s resisting arrest, to get them into custody and ensure a child’s safety.

“Some force is necessary, but remember, it has to meet those five prongs,” Murray said. “Is it necessary, reasonable, appropriate, proportional to the situation and did I have the legal means to do what I did?”

The Yakima Police Department has had a few uses of force come under community criticism in the past year, including:

  • A video that surfaced in June of last year that appeared to show a Yakima police officer kneeling on a handcuffed man outside a Walmart. Murray previously told KAPP-KVEW the incident — which happened Nov. 10, 2019 — was reviewed internally by Yakima Police Department’s Professional Standards Unit, which determined that the use of force was within the department’s policy standards. Full story here.
  • In July, a controversial video showed an officer using a police dog to bite a pinned-down DUI suspect to get him to put his hands behind his back. Yakima Police Lt. Chad Stephens previously told KAPP-KVEW using a K9 as a “pain compliance” tool is within the department’s use of force policy. Full story here.
  • Earlier this month, a mother filed a negligence and wrongful death lawsuit against the City of Yakima in connection with the death of her son, 31-year-old Jose M. Garcia, who was “completely blind and suffering from severe mental illness” when he was fatally shot by Yakima police officers in 2017. Yakima Police Department officials declined to comment on pending litigation. Full story here.

Murray said that in 99.12% of calls for service to the Yakima Police Department, no force is used. However, he said in reviewing past incidents in the department, he does see room for improvement.

“Without going into specifics, there were a couple of discipline cases where I watched the video and I just thought, ‘We have to do better at de-escalation,'” Murray said. “The officer actually wasn’t wrong, he just didn’t attempt to de-escalate. And so we have to teach them why that’s an important step.”

Prior to the overhaul, YPD officers had to explain what happened in an incident and why they used force. Now, they have to explain why their action was legal, why it was necessary, why it was appropriate, why it was reasonable and why it was proportional to the situation they were dealing with when the use of force occurred.

“There’s a difference between being a department that checks the box and says, ‘We did the training, leave us alone,’ and requiring and expecting the performance of your people,” Murray said. “So in every single report, we’re going to now be able to measure whether they got it or not, just by what it is they write.”

Additionally, officers now have to explain what efforts they took to de-escalate the situation, and if they couldn’t — if there wasn’t time — why they couldn’t de-escalate the situation.

When previously asked about the death of George Floyd, Murray said he was “absolutely troubled” by the “disturbing” video, but declined to pass judgement on the officers involved.

During a press conference Thursday, Murray elaborated on his thoughts on Minneapolis and how they relate to the importance of officer empathy and the use of de-escalation:

“I’m not going to judge Minneapolis or that officer’s actions; there’s a court system designed to do just that. But I will tell you this: I don’t know any police officers who were — felt like that was okay. Nobody did. But here’s what I think is really critical for all of you to hear: I don’t think there’s a huge use of force problem in America. I think there are people who are use-of-force problems and they need to get dealt with and that’s our responsibility, especially in management. But what I do think is there’s an indifference problem. And when you watch that officer sitting on George Floyd: he was indifferent. And you have to have officers care about the outcome. If they don’t, there’s not a relationship, there’s not community. And this [de-escalation training] is just a critical part of that and it’s empathy, understanding and listening and all the things you even want in your own personal relationships. And if you don’t have that, you don’t have an authentic relationship.”