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Rethinking policing: How Tempe de-escalation class changes officer behavior

Posted at 11:04 PM, Jul 02, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-03 02:04:38-04

TEMPE, AZ — Tempe police redesigned their training on de-escalation techniques, and Arizona State University researchers studied the results finding changes in body language, rapport, and even how often tickets were issued.

More than 100 Tempe officers went through the one-day training in 2020, just before the pandemic started.

ASU researchers, led by Criminal Justice Professor Michael White, studied how the training played out on the streets. Over four months, they watched hundreds of hours of body-cam video from trained officers. The ASU team compared those videos to videos of untrained officers and inputted 140 categories of information.

“The body-cam footage really is an excellent tool for looking in a very nuanced way what's happening between police officers and citizens,” said Prof. White.

FULL SECTION: Rethinking Policing

In recent years, Tempe police have faced public protests for several use-of-force incidents involving young men of color. These include the 2016 fatal shooting of Dalvin Hollins, 19, an unarmed man suspected in a robbery. In 2019, a Tempe officer shot 14-year-old Antonio Arce who had a fake gun and was running away. In 2020, Officer Ronald Kerzaya faced disciplinary action after he held a Black hotel employee, Tre Cumpian, at gunpoint when the officer was supposed to look for a white suspect.

“Situations continue to be volatile,” said Tempe Detective Natalie Barela. ”We want to make sure that we find ways to improve and communicate with our citizens and reduce that aggression or violence opportunities.”

To develop this training Tempe police did two things. First, the department sent some officers to other police agencies to learn about best practices across the nation. Second, they picked a group of their own officers, considered to be best at de-escalation by their peers, and monitored what they did.

"It's communication, it's planning, it's listening," Det. Barela said. "It's reading people's physical body language and physical cues in order to better understand what's going on with that person that we're at with."

Tempe shared video examples with the ABC15 Investigators, although they blurred the video to protect the identities of the citizens.

In one case, an officer had a shoplifting suspect at gunpoint. After re-holstering his gun, the officer tried to lower the tension by listening to the man's side of the story and offering him a more comfortable place to sit.

In a second case, a woman who was being arrested for suspected drug possession becomes panicky and cries because she's worried about what will happen to her dog and career. The officers promised to find a place for the pet and encouraged her to calm down.

Prof. White's team concluded the officers with the new de-escalation training were:

  • Significantly less likely to use a condescending or patronizing tone
  • Significantly more likely to attempt to build rapport with the citizen
  • Significantly less likely to fail to transfer control to another officer, if first officer is too agitated or unable to de-escalate.
  • Significantly less likely to use charged or imposing body language

"Simple things like officers having their hand on their gun, right?" said Det. Barela, explaining body language awareness. "Officers standing, maybe, in a way that makes someone else feel intimidated."

Prof. White said his team could not pinpoint whether the training led to a reduction in shootings or other uses of force.

"Because in Tempe," White said, "it's very rare that officers get complaints or that there are injuries in encounters."

The team did conclude officers who went through the de-escalation training were significantly more likely to resolve an encounter informally, especially not issuing a ticket or citation.

"Ultimately, the goal of this training is to make sure that officers are doing everything possible to resolve and encounter peacefully," White said.

Tempe is now training its entire police force on de-escalation techniques, and they are sharing their model with other police departments across the county.