The fruits of a ‘guardian’ mind-set

Lees­burg of­fi­cers’ han­dling of armed, sui­ci­dal man a model of new polic­ing

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY TOM JACK­MAN

The man called 911 to re­port trou­ble breath­ing, although in fact his plan was to com­mit sui­cide with a pis­tol and have paramedics find him. But when the fire-and-res­cue truck ar­rived at his Lees­burg apart­ment, he was still alive, hold­ing his gun. The paramedics backed away and called the po­lice.

Sgt. Mark Davis and Of­fi­cer Alex Hil­ton of the Lees­burg po­lice pulled up soon af­ter and peeked through the open apart­ment door. There the 78-year-old man stood, hold­ing a gun against his chest, say­ing noth­ing. He would not an­swer dis­patch­ers’ phone calls.

Davis and Hil­ton stepped in with their guns drawn, and Davis re­peat­edly told the man to put his pis­tol down. The man did not com­ply. In­stead, he darted into the next room, hid be­hind a wall and held his gun out in the door­way, dar­ing the of­fi­cers to make the next move.

But this story does not end as many oth­ers have re­cently. The of­fi­cers did not shoot.

Rather than fire at the armed man, Davis slid his gun back into its hol­ster. He walked over and gripped the man’s hand hold­ing the pis­tol. And, slowly, he talked the man into low­er­ing the weapon. Then, rather than ar­rest him, the po­lice ar­ranged for him to get psy­chi­atric treat­ment.

Sev­eral months later, Hil­ton walked past the apart­ment, and the man, whom po­lice de­clined to

iden­tify, stepped out­side. “Of­fi­cer Hil­ton,” the man told him, “thank you for what you guys did.”

The episode oc­curred last year, be­fore many of the high-pro­file po­lice shoot­ings that have at­tracted in­tense at­ten­tion in re­cent months. The Lees­burg Po­lice Depart­ment is try­ing to in­still a “guardian men­tal­ity” in its of­fi­cers in­stead of a “war­rior men­tal­ity,” a sense that of­fi­cers are there to “pro­tect the cit­i­zens rather than con­quer them,” Po­lice Chief Joseph Price said.

Other de­part­ments across the coun­try are mak­ing sim­i­lar ef­forts. Many law en­force­ment agen­cies are grap­pling with how to deal with dis­traught or men­tally ill cit­i­zens, with many chiefs of po­lice seek­ing spe­cial­ized “cri­sis in­ter­ven­tion team” train­ing for of­fi­cers.

Price said he is grad­u­ally im­ple­ment­ing CIT train­ing across his 87-mem­ber force, which pa­trols the town of about 49,500.

But Davis and Hil­ton did not have CIT train­ing when they en­coun­tered the man in his dark, clut­tered apart­ment shortly be­fore noon on March 14, 2014. They said they sim­ply used com­mon sense and did as they were trained.

“You go in think­ing you are go­ing to do the best you can,” Davis said, “but you don’t know. You have to make split-sec­ond de­ci­sions, and you have to re­act. When you train like you fight and fight like you train, it’s all mus­cle mem­ory.”

The Loudoun County Cham­ber of Com­merce re­cently awarded Davis, 54, and Hil­ton, 27, medals of valor for their ac­tions — or non-ac­tions.

“Those cops took a risk,” said Chuck Wexler, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Po­lice Ex­ec­u­tive Re­search Fo­rum, “but they did what we have learned in Scot­land and Eng­land— which is you try to com­mu­ni­cate with some­one by ask­ing ques­tions rather than is­su­ing or­ders, and that more than any­thing else starts to de-es­ca­late a sit­u­a­tion. Too of­ten in these kinds of sit­u­a­tions, po­lice see it as a use-of­force de­ci­sion rather than a men­tal-health cri­sis. And that is so im­por­tant in how you ap­proach these en­coun­ters.”

Men­tal-health ex­perts agree that be­ing ready to talk and wait, rather than just shoot­ing, is a key el­e­ment of any street of­fi­cer’s ap­proach.

“The fact that the po­lice re­sponded the way they did, to deesca­late this cri­sis, is re­ally im­por­tant and in­struc­tive,” said Paul Gion­friddo, pres­i­dent of Men­tal Health Amer­ica. “This, hope­fully, will be­come a more com­mon kind of re­sponse.”

Gion­friddo said of­fi­cers are rightly aware of their own safety and con­cerned about whether they get to go home at the end of their shifts. “It’s re­ally hard when con­fronted with such a sit­u­a­tion,” he said. “This gen­tle­man needed sup­port and an op­por­tu­nity to get help, and he got it from these of­fi­cers.”

Mike Woody, pres­i­dent of CIT In­ter­na­tional, which pro­vides cri­sis train­ing to law en­force­ment agen­cies na­tion­wide, said de­part­ments are “clam­or­ing for this now.”

Stud­ies have shown that de­part­ments that can dis­patch CIT trained of­fi­cers to peo­ple in psy­chi­atric cri­sis greatly re­duce in­juries to of­fi­cers, Woody said. And that is when just 25 per­cent of a depart­ment’s pa­trol of­fi­cers are CIT-trained, he said.

Sam Cochran of the Univer­sity of Mem­phis CIT Cen­ter, where the cri­sis in­ter­ven­tion pro­gram was launched in 1988 in con­junc­tion with the Mem­phis Po­lice Depart­ment, said CIT train­ing has in­creased na­tion­wide in re­cent years, although there are no cen­tral­ized sta­tis­tics. In Ohio alone, Woody said, the num­ber of po­lice em­ploy­ees with CIT train­ing soared from fewer than 100 in two coun­ties in 2001 to 687 in 2013. Last year, 951 took the train­ing in 47 lo­ca­tions across the state.

Woody also was a po­lice of­fi­cer in Akron for 25 years, and he said of the in­ci­dent in Lees­burg: “We did stuff like that all the time. It’s just what we did. It wasn’t news­wor­thy. But now we’ve gone too far with that war­rior mind-set of of­fi­cers.”

Price said he still wanted Lees­burg of­fi­cers “to have the skills of a war­rior, to be ready to use them. But 99 and 44/ per­cent of the

100 time, your mind-set has to be that of a guardian.”

Davis and Hil­ton said they were ready to use force if needed that day in March 2014. But the up­set Lees­burg man did not point his gun di­rectly at them and did not say any­thing to them.

“We told him we weren’t there to hurt him,” Davis said, “but we needed him to drop the gun.”

As Davis sev­eral times re­peated the com­mand for the man to drop the gun, “he doesn’t say any­thing. The gun was in front of him, pointed down.” Hil­ton said he and Davis were per­haps eight feet from the man.

Then the man sim­ply turned and ran into the next room.

“I was slightly un­nerved,” said Davis, a sher­iff ’s deputy who has been a po­lice of­fi­cer since 1980. “I wasn’t sure about the lay­out of the apart­ment, and I wasn’t ex­pect­ing him to turn and dis­ap­pear.”

Then the man stuck his gun out into the door­way. And Davis made the key de­ci­sion: “I put my pis­tol away.”

He walked over to the man, “reached out and grabbed the gun,” Davis said. “If you grab it a cer­tain way, we’re taught, he can’t squeeze the trig­ger. I keep telling him, ‘I’ve got it; just let it go.’ Af­ter two or three times, he did let go. He let out a sigh like, ‘It’s over.’ He said he had no in­ten­tion of harm­ing us.”

As with many po­lice of­fi­cers, Davis and Hil­ton — the lat­ter has seven years of ser­vice — said they have never fired their weapons in the line of duty. But they said they were ready that morn­ing in Lees­burg.

“If it came to that,” Davis said. “Maybe if he would have come back around the cor­ner.” But in­stead, he put his own gun away and re­solved the sit­u­a­tion with­out us­ing it.

“Too of­ten in these kinds of sit­u­a­tions, po­lice see it as a use-of-force de­ci­sion rather than a men­tal­health cri­sis.” Chuck Wexler, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Po­lice Ex­ec­u­tive Re­search Fo­rum


Of­fi­cer Alex Hil­ton, left, and Sgt. Mark Davis won praise for peace­fully re­solv­ing an armed stand­off in this Lees­burg apart­ment.


Sgt. Mark Davis, cen­ter, of the Lees­burg Po­lice Depart­ment demon­strates how onMarch 14, 2014, he grabbed the gun hand of a 78year-old man in an apart­ment now rented by Ben Schoenberger, right. Davis was ac­com­pa­nied that day by Of­fi­cer Alex Hil­ton, left.

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