I-Team explores how NC law officers are training to de-escalate conflicts

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- De-escalation training and crisis intervention training for law enforcement have risen in popularity in recent years as multiple use-of-force incidents attract national attention.

Advocates hope excessive use-of-force incidents can be reduced by better training officers to control their force and take steps to de-escalate situations before they turn deadly.

While the training has been at the front of policing reform conversations across the nation, North Carolina does not mandate law enforcement annually to participate in specific de-escalation training courses.

Without a statewide mandate, it's up to individual agencies to set requirements for their officers and deputies. The ABC11 I-Team uncovered agencies' approach to de-escalation training varies.

Individuals do learn de-escalation tactics during basic training and sometimes it is included in mandated annual training. Next year, law enforcement personnel will be required to participate in four hours of de-escalation training.

Outside of annual training requirements, known as in-service training, and basic training, it falls on individual agencies to determine how often officers receive refreshers on these tactics.

The North Carolina Justice Academy began a de-escalation training model for the first time this April. Around 180 officers from 179 agencies across the state have participated in this training.

In 2018, there were an estimated 22,361 officers and deputies serving in North Carolina, according to the Criminal Justice Analysis Center.

Agencies can also offer in-house training on various topics or partner with local community colleges that offer courses.

Annual de-escalation training is required for Cumberland County Sheriff's Office deputies. De-escalation training is also required every time a deputy is involved with a use of force action. A spokesperson for the office said 100% of deputies have completed this training that is offered at the agency.

All officers with the Raleigh Police Department have received de-escalation training in the last three years. The agency has also required all recruits to complete crisis intervention training before graduation.

Other agencies like the Fayetteville Police Department and Wake County Sheriff's Office do not require specific de-escalation training regularly. Instead, both agencies pointed to its inclusion in officers' initial basic training and in-service training. Both agencies said employees do regularly get in-house training but they did not specify a de-escalation course. The ABC11 I-Team also reached out to the Durham Police Department and the Durham's Sheriff's Office but has not heard back.

For smaller agencies, it can be tough to spare officers for a day to complete training. Robeson County Community College created a course to help reduce this barrier.

"We're a low-income area. So, to be able to provide training such as this with such high-quality equipment... we're trying to allow them to take advantage of things, the opportunities that larger municipalities or counties are able to provide," said Lee Hinson, Robeson County Community College's director of law enforcement continuing education.

This week the college offered de-escalation training in a handful of four-hour sessions for about 100 officers. Many of the officers this week were from the local agencies but the college hopes to target smaller agencies across the state in future sessions.

The college utilized new stimulation technology to help place trainees in real-life stressful situations from defensive driving to active shooters to a physical altercation.

"This equipment is used to actually help them understand the importance of deescalating the situation so that they can use their communication skills when they're out in the street, and hopefully this real-life training will give them that opportunity so when they are on the street, they can revert back to their training to be able to try to talk down a situation, it just it helps out tremendously," Hinson said.

Robeson County Sheriff deputy Brian Fields was one of the officers who participated in the training. The deputy has only been with the agency since May but said he's gone through multiple de-escalation training and finds it beneficial.

"You know with everything going on right now, the way we talk, the way we interact with people says a lot, and it really can help deescalate a lot of situations," Fields said.

He said he sees how these skills will help benefit both his department and community.

"There's a lot of pressure on police officers now," Fields said. "I think it's a two-way lane, you know, dealing with the public, talking to the public but also having that respect and earned that respect from the public as well. You know, you get the respect, you give respect."

That's what Hinson hopes this training can help improve throughout the officer's communities.

"If they can go back to their agency or their community and they can deescalate situations, use their training to deescalate situations, it helps with the perception of law enforcement in their community," Hinson said.

Following George Floyd's death in May 2020, Gov. Roy Cooper created the Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice. Part of the recommendations from stakeholders across the state included changing training for law enforcement. Add crisis intervention training, update protest training, revamp basic enforcement training, and evaluate law enforcement programs' effectiveness were all part of the task force's recommendations.

"Looking at how we train our officers is extremely important," said Kerwin Pitman, Raleigh activist and a member of the task force. "We essentially train our law enforcement officers to be soldiers and yet we send them out to be social workers."

He and others believe implementing regular crisis intervention training and de-escalation training will help reduce the number of incidents that escalate dangerously.

"We know there are proven techniques that officers can deploy to actually lower the temperature and gain calm and trust of the person, so that we can have, hopefully, avoid an unfortunate outcome," explained NC Attorney General Josh Stein who led the task force.

Pitman said the state is in the process of developing a statewide accreditation program that will set standards agencies will need to meet or risk losing funding.

"That accreditation will have mandatory reoccurring crisis intervention training not only for basic law enforcement officers but also for individuals throughout their career, psychological evaluations for officers because we know that this job right here can lead to stresses and these stresses can be taken out or individuals who are used to be sworn to protect and serve," Pitman said.

Stein said the state is already putting some of the task force's recommendations into action.

"We are revamping Basic Law Enforcement Training, we've changed the rules so that the Commissions can be more agile in adding new courses, depending on what circumstances are happening in the state. We are adding things like requirements on duty to intervene and appropriate use of force policies. So, I think we're being very responsive to the needs of the people," Stein said.

The interest in expanding de-escalation tactics is one echoed at the federal level. On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Justice announced $13 million in grants to support national de-escalation training efforts. The department also announced $9 million to help expand crisis intervention teams.

"The wide range of programs these funds will support - from de-escalation training and anti-bias efforts to technical assistance and accreditation programs - are critical to achieving our public safety goals," Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said in the release.

Stein said revamping training is a step in the right direction but will take some time to fully pay off.

"These issues about rebuilding trust between police officers and the communities they serve, there's no switch that we can flip and make things right and perfect," he said. "What it will take is months and years of dedicated work for my people of goodwill to try to make law enforcement, even more, effective in North Carolina."
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