Teaching Police to Holster Their Emotions

The Christian Science Monitor

By Martin Kuz

The middle-aged man sat slumped on his living room sofa with a beer bottle in one hand and a 12-inch knife in the other. His roommate had called police fearing that his friend, despondent over his fiancée jilting him, might take his own life.

Officer Mat Kelly and his partner responded to the scene. They moved into the room and stood several feet away from the man to ensure their safety and to signal they wanted only to talk. Rather than yell commands, Mr. Kelly, with a gun and a Taser holstered on either hip, spoke in a low voice and asked about his problems. After the man mentioned the failed engagement, the officer replied less like a cop than a confidant.

“Oh, wow, that’s rough. I know the feeling,” Kelly said. “I once had a girlfriend call me at work and break up with me.”

Kelly went on to share that he recovered from the split and later met the woman he would marry. The exchange of heartbreak tales eased the man’s misery, and as the tension of the moment ebbed, he put down the knife and accepted a ride to meet with a counselor.

At that point, a police instructor halted the training exercise, praising Kelly and his partner for their calm approach to the mock emergency. The scene unfolded not inside a home but in a cinderblock room on the campus of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission in this Seattle suburb. A crisis actor played the part of the troubled man; the officers carried prop weapons.

Despite the simulated setup, Kelly realized the scenario’s real-world relevance. He and two dozen other officers from area police agencies had enrolled in a week-long course to learn methods for defusing encounters with people in the throes of a behavioral health crisis. The training, held last month at the state’s police academy, mirrors programs spreading nationwide amid intensified scrutiny of fatal shootings by police of people with mental illness.

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