After a tour abroad teaching cops how to ease tense stand-offs, a respected former top city cop has returned to offer New Haven officers the same de-escalation training—a first-in-the-state effort launched amid police-citizen controversies nationwide.
Tensions between cops and their communities have been high since unarmed black men were killed by police officers in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island. Following those deaths, two officers were killed in Brooklyn and two officers recently shot in Ferguson.
Though New Haven is experiencing some of its lowest crime rates in recent history, about 40 New Haven officers have participated in de-escalation training and over the next four or five months all of the department’s officers, including rookie cops at the police academy, will receive the training.
The course, provided by the Connecticut Alliance to Benefit Law Enforcement (CABLE), is called “The New Face of Law Enforcement: Crisis Communication for Front Line Patrol Officers and Support Personnel.
The police department tapped one of its own, former Lt. Ray Hassett, to teach the course. Hassett retired from the department in 2012, after 25 years as an officer. Hassett served as district manager for the Dwight neighborhood as well as the department’s SWAT chief.
Since he left the department, the FBI-trained hostage negotiator has worked as a contractor for the U.S. State Department’s Anti-Terrorism Assistance Program, assisting police agencies around the world with hostage negotiation training including countries in the Middle East, Colombia, India, and the Philippines.
This past Wednesday, Hassett described to 15 officers at police headquarters the bedrock of de-escalation techniques: how to slow things down.
He talked with officers about the importance of listening not only to what the person is saying, but to the emotion behind it.
“If the person is upset, or sounds frustrated, acknowledge it,” he said. “Say, ‘You sound frustrated.’ Ask them about that frustration. Listen to their story. Everybody wants their story heard.”
Hassett said a person coming in contact with a police officer is probably not having the best day, and officers should use empathy as another technique. He said they should also be aware of environmental, emotional, perceptional and cultural issues, and have some sensitivity to why people might be less than cooperative when they come in contact with the officers.
He pointed to a recent incident in Alabama, in which officers encountered an Indian man walking around a local subdivision. When officers attempted to question him and pat him down, the man, who spoke no English, started to walk away. The officers ultimately took the man down with aggressive techniques that resulted in the man being injured so badly that he had to be hospitalized.
“I’ve worked in India, and knowing about the culture, I understand why he might have walked away,” Hassett said. “I’m sure those officers’ intentions were good, but I’m certain had they slowed things down, they would have realized that he didn’t represent any threat, and slowing down might have given a different result. The result they got went viral and is probably being shown in Australia with the officers as the bad guys.”
Click on the play arrow to watch Hassett step in to defuse an escalating confrontation between a disruptive woman and a cop who lost his cool on Sherman Avenue in 2009. And click here for a detailed look at a simulation he led in 2012 on behalf of CABLE at Chapel and Day Streets.
Hassett said de-escalation training is vital for officers particularly in the wake of the fatal encounters between cops and unarmed citizens in Ferguson and New York. He said they also should consider whether someone is dealing with a mental illness, addiction, or even a traumatic brain injury, particularly if the person is prior-military.
“Slowing things down, listening, using empathy, all of it improves our relationship with the community of people we serve,” he told the officers. “Listen more than you talk. And practice, practice, practice. Why? Because it’s good for business. The bottom line is you could be saving the next cops life.”
Sgt. Eric Scott (pictured), who sat in on the training Wednesday, called the session one of the best he’d attended in his 17 years as an officer. “This will go a long way in helping to rebuild that bridge of trust with the community,” said Scott, who until recently served as Mayor Toni Harp’s security detail. “We need the support of the people, and they need us. We are a small part of a bigger picture, and this is not about us, it is about the people we serve.”
Hassett said police officers are routinely taught how to escalate a situation, but rarely how de-escalate it. Knowing when to use which technique could be the difference between life and death for the officer and the person coming in contact with that officer, he said.
Assistant Chief Al Vazquez (pictured), who is in charge of professional standards and training for the department, said he started looking for de-escalation training models soon after a grand jury failed to return an indictment of the officers in the death of Eric Garner, who died after officers used a banned chokehold procedure while trying to arrest him.
Vazquez said he was considering several models, when he bumped into Hassett one day at police headquarters. They started talking about the training. He learned that de-escalation training was exactly what Hassett now does. “It gives the officers and extra tool in their tool belt,” he said.
Hassett said he honed many of the skills that he teaches all over the world during his time as a New Haven police officer, and he’s honored to be able to share what he knows with a city he loves.
“My mission,” he said, “is to make cops better.”