The quiet resolution of a tense standoff during Seattle rush hour is a tribute to the progress of Seattle police reforms. Training saves lives.
WHEN a 22-year-old man holding a knife begged Seattle police to shoot him on Third Avenue during rush hour, bystanders thought he might get his wish. That would probably be the result in many other cities, and maybe even a few years ago in Seattle.
But Tuesday’s incident ended after two hours without violence as the man’s mother looked on, and her son was taken to the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation — not gunshot wounds. Most officers on the scene had specialized training for defusing crises with people in psychosis.
What’s most noteworthy is that this was not an isolated incident.
Since signing the 2012 consent decree with the Department of Justice, the Seattle Police Department has built an impressive record of de-escalating potentially incendiary incidents involving people in psychiatric crisis. Out of 9,300 crisis response incidents in 2015, just 149 involved any use of force, and just 36 with the equivalent of tackling someone to the ground. Fewer than 8 percent of the subjects were arrested. Last year’s data is expected soon.
Those impressive statistics can be attributed to a dramatic expansion in the number of front-line officers given Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training, an in-depth course about mental illness and de-escalation techniques. In 2016, some Seattle precincts had 70 percent of officers who were CIT-certified. As the incident on Third Avenue showed, that training saves lives.
Seattle police have long embraced a model, pioneered in Memphis, Tenn., of de-escalating people in mental health crises by embedding CIT officers on patrol. But the 2011 DOJ analysis of Seattle police use-of-force incidents still found that 70 percent of those incidents involved people in psychiatric or drug-induced crisis, in part because the training wasn’t broad enough.
Now, basic Crisis Intervention Training is mandated for all officers, along with much stronger de-escalation techniques which encourage officers to use time as a friend. “We know that the longer an incident goes, the more likely it will end without force,” said Seattle police Sgt. Sean Whitcomb.
“It was a wonderful example of our police officers de-escalating, waiting patiently, and saving a life,” said Seattle Councilmember Tim Burgess.
The state police academy now gives all new recruits eight hours of CIT training, and is working to train all veteran officers by 2021. That mandate, passed by the Legislature in 2015, is named after Doug Ostling, a man with mental illness who was unnecessarily shot by two Bainbridge Island officers utterly lacking skills for dealing with people in psychosis.
That training could have saved Ostling’s life. It probably did save a life on Tuesday, in the middle of Seattle rush hour.