In an order signed Wednesday, U.S. District Judge James Robart approved a program in which Seattle police officers will be trained in tactical skills and strategies to de-escalate confrontations and reduce the need to use force.

Share story

A federal judge has approved a Seattle police training program to teach officers how to de-escalate tense encounters on the street, moving the city closer to complying with court-ordered reforms to curtail excessive force.

Along with previous modifications, the training is a key requirement of a 2012 consent decree between the city and U.S. Justice Department. The hard-fought agreement stemmed from federal findings that officers had engaged in a pattern or practice of excessive force and displayed troubling, if inconclusive, evidence of biased policing.

Failure to use de-escalation tactics and unnecessary escalation of incidents were cited as central elements of the findings.

In an order signed Wednesday, U.S. District Judge James Robart approved a program in which all 1,300 sworn officers will be trained this year in tactical skills and strategies to de-escalate confrontations and reduce the need to use force.

Most Read Local Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

The four-hour training, designed to help officers as they make split-second decisions, was developed by the Seattle Police Department, with the endorsement of the Justice Department, the Seattle City Attorney’s Office and Merrick Bobb, the federal monitor overseeing implementation of the consent decree.

“This training is a notable step forward,” Bobb wrote in a memorandum urging Robart to approve the program.

“The Seattle Police Department is proud to be at the forefront in providing this innovative de-escalation training to our officers,” Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole said in a statement. “We will continue to work collaboratively with the Department of Justice and Monitor Merrick Bobb to implement the consent decree and enhance community trust.”

The goal is to teach officers that “tactical de-escalation is more than a set of specific skills but also an overarching approach to incident resolution and community policing,” the Justice Department said in a statement issued Thursday by Vanita Gupta, principal deputy assistant attorney general of the civil-rights division, and Acting U.S. Attorney Annette L. Hayes in Seattle.

“De-escalation more broadly refers to the strategic slowing down of an incident in a manner that allows officers more time, distance, space and tactical flexibility during dynamic situations on the street,” the statement said.

With the training, officers will have a greater potential to resolve conflicts with “minimized force or no force at all,” reducing the chance of injuries to the public and officers and lessening “potential or ongoing threats,” the statement said.

Bobb, in his memorandum, noted that many Seattle residents, along with others throughout the country, have suggested de-escalation training for officers.

But the concept has tended to be “imprecisely defined and served as a kind of ‘catchall’ term or approach used to refer to anything that might defuse difficult police encounters,” Bobb wrote.

The program, he said, specifically deepens precise training officers began receiving last year on the meaning of de-escalation and its value.

“By providing clear detail and real-world techniques that officers can apply immediately in the field, it puts substantial ‘meat on the bones’ of what ‘de-escalation’ is in its full scope and how, when, and why such techniques should be used,” Bobb wrote of the program.

Officers will be taught listening and communication skills and how to appropriately recognize and react to body language.

Tactical lessons also will be woven into every aspect of specific training that officers receive during the year, the Justice Department statement said.

A separate, four-hour firearms training program, also approved by Robart, will include stressful scenarios in which officers must address an unknown threat, evaluate it and determine whether and how to give verbal commands and use de-escalation techniques. They also will be required to make decisions on whether force is necessary, including lethal force.

Officers will receive the training the same day they undergo the de-escalation training, to further emphasize how to “safely and effectively resolve dynamic and fast-moving situations,” Bobb’s memo said.

While approval of the training is a major step forward, the police department still faces major hurdles to meet the terms of the consent decree. Among them is the construction of a sophisticated computer system to collect and analyze key data relating to reforms.

As the department has entered its third year under federal oversight, Bobb has stated he wants to assess whether sweeping policy and procedural policy changes in areas such as use of force, crisis intervention,stops and detentions are translating into better policing and improved public perception.

Bobb wrote in a report last month that a “great deal has been accomplished” in the first two years and that he expects progress to continue. Part of the coming year, he wrote, will be spent measuring just how effective the reforms have been, to allow for midcourse corrections and to ensure “the requirements of the Consent Decree are being carried out in practice — not merely on paper.”