ONLY ON WWAY: A look inside WPD’s use of force training and de-escalation techniques

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WILMINGTON, NC (WWAY) — Many people have expressed interest in knowing more about police training, particularly de-escalation techniques and use of force training.

Wilmington Police Department is sharing some insight on what their officers go through before they’re sent out to fulfill their mission to protect and serve.

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Lieutenant Matt Fox of WPD’s Training Division explains officers go through at least 700 hours of Basic Law Enforcement Training before they’re hired. After they’re hired, they go through Rookie School, where they learn a lot of things like de-escalation and less-lethal weapons (i.e. tasers). Finally, the new recruits go through a Field Training Program where they’re trained by a veteran field training officer.

“Before they’re ever allowed to sit in the car by themselves, they’ve gone through and successfully completed all of this stuff,” Fox said. “We’re certainly not going to put anybody out on the street unless they’re ready.”

As far as the Use of Force Training, Fox said it’s complex, comprehensive, and made up of three parts.

“The first is prevention. The second is decision-making, how do we make those good use of force decisions. Last is performance,” Fox said. “I think it serves us well to pay a lot of attention to the first piece of that which is prevention.”

As a 21 year veteran of the department, Fox said any officer with years of experience will tell you the best way to get through a use of force situation is to stop it before it escalates. They teach this in several different ways, including utilizing the Use of Force Simulator at the Haynes/Lacewell Police and Fire Training Facility.

The simulator is a tool used to take officers through scenarios where they have to make split-second decisions on when to use force and what kind of force. Additionally, they train officers to be hyper-aware of their surroundings, emotional intelligence, good communication skills, and de-escalation techniques.

“I think it’s a misnomer to use expressions like ‘de-escalate somebody.’ That presupposes that I have some kind of external control over somebody else’s mind, heart, or soul,” Fox said. “All I can do is affect the environment as much as possible, create conditions to allow someone to calm down and de-escalate themselves.”

Fox said using force is not very common and the use of deadly force is even less common. He said many people’s perception is based on what they see on television, which is the rare, worst-case scenario.

“There are about 650,000 patrol officers in the U.S. that interact with citizens all day, every day. That’s a formula for hundreds of millions of police/citizen interactions annually in our country alone,” Fox said. “It’s very rare to have any use of force, much less deadly use of force. It’s so rare that it’s newsworthy when it happens.”

Sergeant R. Hamilton, the liaison for the Crisis Intervention Team, put his training to use recently.

“The call originally came out in reference to an assault that took place,” Hamilton said. “Once the officers arrived, they actually learned it was a common-law robbery that had taken place and the suspect had left.”

Once officers found the suspect, he was in the road and armed with a gun. Hamilton said he wasn’t pointing the weapon at anyone, but he was possibly impaired. He was speaking incoherently and eventually sat on the ground and starting spinning in circles.

In this situation, he utilized his crisis intervention training.

“It helps us deal with recognizing individuals that may be in a crisis. Through substance abuse, homelessness, things like that,” Hamilton said. “Then we have a dial-up play or a way that we can pretty much handle those situations.”

The officers gave the suspect commands and he cooperated. This is the ideal way to end these interactions.

“Our officers are out here 24/7. We’re trying to do the best that we can to de-escalate or recognize these situations and we just want them to end peacefully,” Hamilton said.

Unfortunately, Chief Donny Williams said not all encounters can end peacefully.

“An officer may be put in a predicament where they have to use deadly force to save their life or the life of someone else,” Williams said.

The chief referenced a campaign the department launched years ago, emphasizing the importance of cooperation.

“Listen to what the officer has to tell you. Comply and if you have an issue with it, you complain about it later on and let us get through it that way,” Williams said.

Another important piece of the puzzle is community engagement. The chief has challenged officers to engage with all members of the community, not just youth.

These efforts paid off recently. A man was downtown holding a knife to his own neck and had developed a rapport with a particular officer so he requested him. The officer came to the scene and was able to talk him through the situation.

At the end of the day, Williams said he and his officers want to fulfill their mission to protect and serve.

“When officers leave their homes and their families for the day, no one wants to come to work and say that I’ve hurt someone or that I’ve had to use deadly force,” Williams said.

Chief Williams added that cooperation from the community is essential for them to do their jobs. He thought of two cases just recently that were solved thanks to the help of the community.