Take Action: De-escalation query letter for local law enforcement

In light of recent events, I’m gathering signatures on a letter that will go to Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo, asking about the amount and type of de-escalation training our local police receive. This is the first step in what I hope will be a public conversation about police training and tactics, and their role in community violence. I’m convinced that the lack of high-quality training in de-escalation skills is a big factor in excessive-force incidents involving police. Insufficient training in this area places officers as well as citizens at risk; thus, police departments that don’t take de-escalation training seriously are demonstrating a failure of leadership.

If you’d like to take local action to reduce violence involving law enforcement officials, please feel free to use this letter as a model.

NB: I’ve created this post, on my web site, for people interested in pressing for good quality de-escalation training for law enforcement personnel. If you don’t think that’s an appropriate course of action–for whatever reason–go write about your feelings on your own website. Do not post your opinions here. Any comments that I feel do not promote healthy discussion will be summarily deleted–though I reserve the right to screenshot them in draft form in order to publicly humiliate the poster on social media if I see fit.

To: Art Acevedo, Chief of Police
Austin Police Department
715 E. Eighth St.
Austin, TX 78701

Dear Chief Acevedo,

We write to you in a spirit of collaboration, hoping to open a dialogue about how we can reduce violence in the community where we all live and work.

In the wake of recent police shootings in Ferguson, Missouri; Cleveland, Ohio; New York City; and elsewhere in the United States, we have grown increasingly concerned about the frequent use of force by law enforcement personnel. In many cases, police seem to use lethal force when it is not warranted. Too often, this has led to tragic results.

The Austin Police Department itself was, as recently as 2011, investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice; we understand that one of the resulting recommendations from the DOJ involved identifying training issues that would minimize the use of force by APD personnel. We are concerned that police officers across the country, and in our own community, receive inadequate training and practice in de-escalation methods. In an effort to understand how the Austin Police Department prepares its officers for the responsible use of force while on duty, we are seeking  the following information:

How many hours of training, initially and continuing, do APD officers receive in the following areas:

Firearms – We would like to know what initial training is required before officers are permitted to carry a firearm on duty, the minimum training and practice required in order for them to continue carrying their firearm, and the amount and type of training they typically receive in addition to that minimum.

Non-lethal force – Tasers, beanbags, pepper spray, etc. Again: How are officers initially prepared to use these methods, and how much regular practice and training do they receive thereafter?

De-escalation tactics – Again, we are interested in both initial and recurring training in crisis intervention, recognizing mental health issues, tactical disengagement (non-intervention), specific verbal de-escalation tactics, physical de-escalation tactics (e.g., non-confrontational body language), active listening, and related skills.

We are particularly interested in the amount of dedicated, scenario-based practice time officers receive for each area. If force option simulators are used, we would also like to know the ratio of violent to non-violent outcomes they are programmed to simulate.

We are seeking this information not in order to provoke confrontation or to cast blame. Rather, we genuinely seek to understand how the men and women who are charged with protecting our lives and property are prepared for that important and difficult work. We feel that an informed, respectful conversation on this topic is the best way to achieve our common goal of public safety.

Sincerely,

Susan Schorn
Austin, Texas

Violence, Escalation, and Practice

mcsweeneys_imageIn light of the many recent shootings by law enforcement personnel, I’ve been thinking a lot about the issues addressed in this McSweeney’s column on de-escalation. Having done quite a bit of scenario training, I’m convinced that how, and how much, we practice for crisis situations is a huge factor in the level of force we end up using in those situations:

The key factor is experience. Cops need training and practice with de-escalation skills, or they won’t use them successfully, if at all. That fact that we’re seeing so much escalation in cops’ response to threats indicates they aren’t getting that training. That’s a failure of leadership, and it’s occurring both locally and nationally.

I’m working on a targeted project for local action on this front, and hope to share it shortly. There are ways we can all help to make our communities less violent, and police training is one of them.

Groin Shot Explainer at Jezebel

cqkdhtp7bbi0lj2qv67uI had a piece over at Jezebel recently–something I never really expected to happen given that when my very first McSweeney’s column ran, waaaaaay back in 2009 (!), they didn’t like it much. But Emma Carmichael and Jia Tolentino were a delight to work with, and the finished piece is lushly illustrated with clips from various MMA fights, demonstrating the effects of groin shots on some unlucky fighters.

These days, only Muay Thai fighters strike to the groin—and they only do it in Thailand, where they wear groin protection made from fucking steel. But even armor plating isn’t enough for western sportsmen; in addition to groin protection devices, they shield their balls with every rule, regulation, law, and covenant they can think of. The Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts, for example, list 31 official fouls, with myriad subtle variations on things like kidney strikes (only a foul if you kick with your heel) and elbows (disallowed if striking downward; OK in other directions). And then there’s Item vii: “Groin attacks of any kind.”

 

Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, heroes, and monsters

mcsweeneys_imageMy latest McSweeney’s column, Cage Match: Victorian Novelist Edition, addresses the important question of how to choose the best 19th-century writer for your side in a gang war:

Authors of marriage-plot novels might not be the first place you’d look for fighting prowess, but I see them as a deep talent pool. Seriously, go read Middlemarch and then tell me with a straight face that George Eliot wasn’t capable of terrible things. Or pick up any of Madame de Staël’s novels (go on, I dare you). Hell, Harriet Beecher Stowe started a war. These ladies knew some shit about conflict, even if they did bury it under calling cards and teacups.

New(ish) McSweeney’s Column

mcsweeneys_imageI’ve been working on my next McSweeney’s column and realized I forgot to post the last one. Here it is: Control Freaks.

If, in discussing “appropriate” use of force, we reduce every violent police encounter to the moment the first blow is struck, we willfully ignore all the other what-if moments leading up to it, all of which offer much better opportunities for intervention and safe resolution. Shooting bad guys may sound more fun and exciting, but I don’t see why people should die just because our collective attention spans are too short to think about the problem in larger terms.