PHOENIX — As concerns about police shootings rose in Phoenix in 2019, community leaders called on the Phoenix Police Department to increase de-escalation training.
In February 2020, Phoenix police allowed ABC15 Investigator Melissa Blasius to participate in the training scenarios, attend an academy lecture, and interview a commander in charge of training.
During a lecture on escalation/de-escalation, the instructor said officers must constantly monitor a situation to determine when to draw their weapons and when to "holster up" to dissolve a crisis.
Recruits were also taught that de-escalation techniques cannot prevent all police shootings or violent encounters. The instructor explained the suspect’s actions ultimately determine the level of force officers use.
“That is the purpose of this class, to start to get you thinking, ‘Hey, when I am in this situation, what am I going to do? What am I allowed to do? Am I justified? How do I articulate it?’” academy instructor Sgt. James Ward said.
The Arizona Police Officer Standards and Training Board writes the required curriculum for police academies statewide, but that curriculum currently does not use the word “de-escalation” even once.
AZPOST’s executive director told the ABC15 Investigators the curriculum is changing in the next year. They are rewriting the academy program based on a new analysis of the needs and skills of today's police officers.
In the meantime, Phoenix recruits are taught to anticipate a conflict by watching for certain verbal and non-verbal cues. They are encouraged to use a calm voice, ask open-ended questions, be responsive, and listen. Officers are told to give people some space. By creating “distance” and “time,” they have the ability to consider less-lethal options.
These techniques are taught through virtual scenarios, and recruits learn through trial and error.
The scenarios are videos projected on a 300-degree screen, and officers can see how a subject reacts to their series of commands and use-of-force options. Recruits can go through dozens of these scenarios. They range from a man holding a baby off the side of a bridge to a man charging them with a screwdriver.
After each scenario, the instructors and recruits debrief about what they did right and where they can improve.
“The hard part for an officer is determining your comfort level, your skill level, and when it's appropriate to use that force,” said Commander Anthony Vasquez who oversees the academy.
Vasquez said he wants officers to think about the entire possible range of response before choosing what is reasonable and necessary.
When asked when an officer always has to use force, Vasquez said, “I don't think I’d ever categorize something as you ‘always’ have to.”