Investigation: Virginia law enforcement must now train in de-escalation to limit use of force

Virginia

YORK COUNTY, Va. (WAVY) — They have come to our region with alarming frequency lately — deadly and controversial police encounters — and they call into question the training for local police and sheriffs’ departments.

A new law that went into effect on March 1 makes it mandatory for agencies to train in what’s known as de-escalation, to bring the temperature down so that cooler heads can prevail.

Some local departments have been training in de-escalation for years, including the York Poquoson Sheriff’s Office.

In August 2018, York-Poquoson Deputy James Robinson answered a call for a man about to jump to his death. Robinson pulled up on the exit from Busch Gardens, which is an overpass that goes over Route 60 Pocahontas Trail.

In 4 minutes and 17 seconds of body camera footage released by the sheriff’s office, the man could be seen sitting on the Jersey wall, feet dangling over the outside of the barrier.

Robinson approached slowly, with an emphasis on conversation instead of confrontation.

“Can I talk to you for a moment? You want to tell me what’s up?” the deputy could be heard asking in his body camera footage.

Robinson then said he was going to quickly help another motorist, taking advantage of the man’s momentary distraction and pulling him from the edge of the overpass, back onto the roadway.

Robinson’s focused approach likely saved the man’s life on that overpass that day.

However, state Sen. Mamie Locke (D-Hampton) says controversial and deadly police encounters seemed to accelerate nationally in 2020. Locally in the past six months, police encounters turned deadly in Virginia Beach as well as Elizabeth City, North Carolina. A traffic stop in Windsor didn’t result in a death, but lawyers are alleging in federal court that the two officers involved used excessive force against a U.S. Army officer.

So, Locke co-sponsored Senate Bill 5030, requiring Virginia law enforcement to provide annual de-escalation training.

“[Police need to be] talking through a situation and using force as your last resort. That shouldn’t be the first thing you go to,” Locke said.

Lt. Sean Jackson has been training deputies at the York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office for years.

“Lately, de-escalation is the buzzword. It’s just refocusing on communication,” Jackson said. “The goal with de-escalation is to give yourself more decision-making time, so you make wiser, better decisions. To hopefully not have to use force.”

It’s a bundle of communications skills that includes creating space between the officer and the subject, active listening, understanding their perspective, and slowing the process down.

“We might need to step back. We might need to put an inanimate object between us and them. That’s also a cue for us to change directions in the conversation,” said York-Poquoson Capt. Thomas West.

In that August 2018 incident, Robinson kept trying to get some response from the man perched on the wall.

“Can you do me that favor and come back on this side while we talk?” he asked. “What’s wrong? Talk to me.”

After three minutes, it was time to act. Robinson managed to come up from behind and snatched the man back from the ledge and onto the side of the road.

The officers say mental health crises demand de-escalation, but the technique works with traffic stops, domestic violence or virtually any other kind of call.

“Once we have used force that was justified, if we continue to use the same level of force, it becomes excessive,” West said. “We have de-escalate our use of force once the situation has become more controlled.”

The Portsmouth Police Department trains in de-escalation as part of its crisis intervention course.

“There might be a crime, but maybe there’s a reason that crime is happening. It’s really important that our officers can recognize when somebody’s in a crisis,” said Portsmouth police spokeswoman Victoria Varnedoe.

Portsmouth cut its use of force by nearly half in the past three years, from 84 times in 2018 down to 43 in 2020. It’s maintaining that pace so far in 2021. The staff does ongoing reviews of any use of force and randomly reviews body cam video.

“When we really focus on our communication, we can make it safer for our officers and our citizens,” Varnedoe said, “and it improves our relationship with our community.”

For Locke, that relationship means law enforcement being able to understand just who it is you’re called to serve and protect.

“For me, de-escalation training had to do with bias training, cultural sensitivity training and knowing more about the community in which you’re serving,” Locke said.

“You got a lot left. You got a lot in you,” Robinson told the man, now under control lying on the pavement. “Why do you want to do that?”

According to the sheriff’s department, the man was taken to a hospital and got help from mental health providers. He now lives out of state and owns a business. Robinson remains in contact with him.

Mandatory de-escalation training was only one of several aspects of police reform within Locke’s legislation. It also addresses an officer shooting into a moving vehicle, the use of neck restraints, and the responsibility of other officers to act when an officer uses excessive force.

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