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We went inside the Baltimore Police Department to see what de-escalation training looks like - and how it could help fix policing

Marisa Palmer,Emily Harger   

We went inside the Baltimore Police Department to see what de-escalation training looks like - and how it could help fix policing
  • Police departments across the country are looking for ways to reform following the police killing of George Floyd and other incidents earlier this year.
  • In Baltimore, new police officers undergo 16 hours of de-escalation training. The training was implemented after the death of Freddie Gray in 2015.
  • This training could be a key to restoring community trust in the police department, but there's a lot of work to be done.
  • We visited the Baltimore Police Department to see what de-escalation training is really like, and what it will take for it to actually make a difference.

Baltimore Police Department's Lieutenant Scott Swenson starts off the training session with a video of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Swenson pauses the video at the moment Officer Derek Chauvin presses his knee on George Floyd's neck.

"8 minutes, 46 seconds. Time to intervene there?" Swenson asks the class.

"Yes," the new trainees respond in unison. One soon-to-be officer says he would grab Chauvin and "take him off."

"You sure?" Swenson asks the class, turning to face the group. He reminds the students that the officers accompanying Chauvin had only been on the force for four days, like they themselves would be soon.

"It's easy to sit here in this room and say you'll intervene, but will you?" he said. "Make your mind up."

This is the beginning of Baltimore Police Department sixteen hour de-escalation course - one of several police departments across the nation implementing de-escalation training.

Back in June, Business Insider Today visited the department to see what the training looks like. And while it's not clear whether de-escalation training is effective, it very well may be one step forward for police departments to regain the trust of their skeptical communities.

"Kill me! Kill me!"

In the first de-escalation scenario, officers are dispatched to a makeshift home where they have limited information about the unfolding scene. One of the role players acts as the suspect's family member.

"So my cousin's in there. He's got the knife, he's off his meds. He's in there by himself right now," the role player says.

The officers-to-be make their way to the door.

"Officer Coleman, BPD," the trainee yells from behind the door. "This is not worth it. There's always other options, sir."

Novice officers go through a rigorous course in Baltimore where they must stop a suspect without applying heavy-handed force. Officers are paired with a partner and enter a room where someone is holding a knife.

During the first scenario, Officer Savannah Porter chooses to protect herself and her partner by deploying a taser instead of finding less lethal options, like closing the door.

"Getting tunnel vision is probably the hardest part. It's realizing that there is an entire world happening outside of what's going on," Porter said.

The training program was created by the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit for policing that trains departments in de-escalation techniques. New officers are taught to create distance between themselves and a suspect. It also encourages them to find cover to protect themselves, instead of reaching for their weapons.

The second and third scenarios are called "Fluid Knife" and "Static Knife." Trainees enter a room backwards and are told to turn around to begin the scene. In the "Static Knife" scenario, role player and BPD detective Tony Cabezas walks determinedly toward novice officer Savannah Porter.

"Kill me, kill me!" Cabezas yells.

"Put the knife down!" Savannah shouts back. After realizing the approaching suspect will not drop his knife, Savannah deploys her replica stun gun - "Taser, taser, taser!" she shouts. (New officers don't carry real weapons during training.)

"Not every situation can be de-escalated. When de-escalation training first came out, there was a lot of concern from officers. 'Does this mean that my safety has to be compromised?' 'Does this mean that I have to be hurt or for this to be effective?' And the answer is no," Swenson said.

To get a better understanding of what the new officers go through, I gave the "Static Knife" scenario a try. Swenson, as my partner, entered the room with me. When we turned around, we were facing a man holding a prop knife close to his wrist.

"My life is over," Calbezas said.

I timidly asked if he'd mind putting it down so we could talk as the knife hovered over his wrist. We went back and forth for about 15 minutes before he began to calm down, eventually dropping the knife altogether.

Now, in full instructor mode, Calbezas admits he was taken aback by my constant questioning. Swenson, who's back to being an instructor and no longer my partner, chimes in.

"So how do we get officers to talk like you and hit all those points," he said, "while still keeping themselves - everybody around them - safe?"

The old way of policing isn't working.

"De-escalation, for the most part, was when a suspect stops resisting, you stop using force," Swenson said.

It's a different type of training, one that most officers who've been on the force for a long time never went through.

That goes for Angel Villaronga, a former Baltimore police officer who de-escalated a standoff in 2017 with a man who was holding a knife and threatening to kill himself or goad the responding officers into shooting him.

The footage shows Villaronga speaking calmly to the suspect, even when the suspect begins yelling and walking down the street, expanding the responding officers' perimeter. After some back and forth, the suspect succumbs to Villaronga's pleas and gives him the knife.

"At the end of the day, I do have a uniform. I do have a job to do. But killing you? That's not a part of my job," Villaronga said.

Many of the new officers we spoke with said they come to Baltimore because they see the city is viewed as a tough policing assignment. One officer who is a Baltimore native, Keona Holley, says most new officers in her cohort aren't from Baltimore, and the community suffers because of it.

"The community needs Baltimore city police officers that are here because they care," she said. "And people that's not born and raised in Baltimore, they don't understand how I feel. This is my home. The community is hurting."

Black residents are used to witnessing police brutality.

A recent survey of Baltimore residents found more than 60% of respondents were not satisfied with their police department. More than half said they witnessed police using excessive force.

Seasoned community organizer Ray Kelly says he's seen it all firsthand.

"That's the American way - to use force. That's how America became America," Kelly said.

Kelly leads the Citizens Policing Project and is the lead community liaison for the Consent Decree Monitoring Team. He also helped organize The People's Decree Summit, where almost 100 residents, 13 organizations, and 11 representatives from the Department of Justice gathered to look over recommendations for how the city's neighborhoods should be policed.

Those recommendations were later reflected in the department's consent decree.

"My subject matter, expertise, doesn't come from any years of college," Kelly said. "I'm from the streets. I've been arrested. I've been mistreated by police."

Born just a couple of years after the Baltimore Riots, Kelly has witnessed what he says is disfranchisement.

"This community's been so disinvested over the past few decades that we've learned to take care of our own," he said.

When it comes to policing, Black people in the city are used to seeing problems with policing in their backyard - most memorably when Freddie Gray was arrested in 2015. Multiple video accounts from the arrest showed the 25-year-old Black man struggling and screaming while officers dragged him into a van in his neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester. He sustained a neck and spinal injury that led to his death a week later.

Thousands of people took to the streets to protest police brutality. The incident sent shockwaves across the nation. Inside the Baltimore Police Department, Swenson remembers training some of the officers involved.

"They would have went through the typical 80 hours of defensive tactics, 16 hours of the baton," he shared. "They wouldn't have gotten the de-escalation training program as you saw it today. We knew we had to make some changes."

The Department of Justice launched an investigation that eventually led to the department's consent decree, which mandated training like de-escalation.

Still, it's not clear if de-escalation training actually works.

There's no comprehensive list that shows how many police departments train in de-escalation.

But a recent CBS survey of 155 large police departments found that the majority had some sort of de-escalation training. Still, that represents only a fraction of the almost 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S.

On top of that, research shows de-escalation training has not been systematically evaluated. Of the trainings that have been reviewed, there have only been moderate benefits of improvement for officers and their communities.

One way to measure the success of a de-escalation program is through a reduction in use-of-force incidents. A recently released study found the implementation of the Police Executive Research Forum's de-escalation training model in the Louisville Police Department helped reduce use-of-force incidents by 28%, citizen injuries by 26%, and officer injuries by 36%.

After I asked Swenson if he thought it took something like a Freddie Gray incident for police departments to change, he paused for a few seconds.

"Unfortunately I'd say a lot of changes are often written in mistakes of the past," he admitted. "Sometimes it takes a catalyst to force you into looking at what you're doing and making the necessary changes."

Some, like Villaronga, say it takes empathy to de-escalate situations.

"Sometimes that's just not taught. It's just grown into you," he said.

Meanwhile, many community members simply hope for sustained reform.

"As Black people, we've been watching these types of actions for over 50 years," Kelly said. "The hope is that one day we won't have to deal with another Freddie Gray incident, George Floyd."

"If we can eliminate the killing of unarmed Black men by the police, then that'll rejuvenate nationwide hope that things can change around the country."


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