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Trenton police putting de-escalation training into action

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It began with a call to the police. A disturbed family member with a knife was threatening to harm himself and others. Trenton police responding to the call that January day utilized new training that helped them de-escalate the situation and take the person into custody.

“To be completely honest with you, the gentleman with the knife created such a life hazard to our officers that under the current attorney general guidelines for use of force, the officers would have been justified in using deadly force, but it didn’t escalate and eventually the person put down the knife and then ask the officers to take it someplace for help,” Training Supervisor Lt. John Harbourt told NJ Advance Media. “One officer spoke exclusively to the man while other officers behind him incorporated their training by feeding the officer questions and statements to help deescalate the situation.”

The department began training officers in de-escalation techniques in September, after a mandate that applied to all departments in New Jersey by then New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal.

“The current climate out there as society on edge when dealing with police officers,” Trenton Police Director Steven Wilson said. “This training hopefully will smooth that edge out and show the public that the police department is part of the community rather than an us versus them mentality.”

Wilson said the training teaches officers to first assess and evaluate each situation they encounter. Previously, they would separate everyone and then do an assessment.

“That kind of action from the officers can actually escalate (situations),” Wilson said. “We’re training now to do the opposite of that and bring everybody down, calm everything.”

The training helps officers see the difference between situations where they have to respond at the moment and those where they can do an assessment first.

The training, created by the Police Executive Research Forum, has been held at Mercer County Community College. While it is funded by the state, Harbourt said it does generate some salary costs for the department.

Wilson said officers may use the training as soon as they complete the courses.

“So just in a matter of like two or three weeks after this training started, we had a couple major incidents that may have turned out a little differently,” Harbourt said.

The training is also beneficial for younger officers, who have not had the life experience to prepare for some of the situations they encounter, Harbourt said, adding the training helps them understand how to de-escalate these situations.

“If you think about when you have a 23-year-old police officer that lives at home, when they’re walking into a domestic (call), they don’t have a lot of life skills to bring to that situation,” Harbourt said. “We’re giving them a set of tools to help them deescalate a situation in hopes that force won’t have to be used in really any way.”

Wilson said he would have implemented the training for every member of the department even if it wasn’t mandatory.

“This is how we change the culture of policing in the city and certainly in the nation,” Wilson said. “I just hope that the people out there recognize that we’re making positive strides in that direction.”

The training includes Integrating Communications, Assessment, and Tactics, used to help officers de-escalate tense situations. Harbourt said ICAT instructs officers on critical thinking, crisis intervention, communications and tactics.

A second training program, Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement, fosters a culture within law enforcement that supports peer intervention by promoting accountability. The goal is to prevent mistakes, address misconduct and promote fellowship among officers.

Editor’s Note: If you’re facing a mental health disorder, you’re not alone. Mental health disorders affect people from all areas of life and all ages, but are treatable. Call Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s national helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) for treatment referral and information. For more information about police de-escalation training, visit www.policeforum.org/about-us.

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Vashti Harris may be reached at [email protected]

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