Janesville police look to save lives with softer approach

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Frank Schultz
Thursday, January 5, 2017

JANESVILLE—Police recently responded to a report of a military veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress.

The man was drinking and threatening to shoot anyone who came near.

There was a time when that would have meant a house surrounded by officers with weapons drawn until the man gave up—or police went in to disarm him.

The anniversary of an event that occurred during the man's military service touched off the episode.

It was the middle of the night, and while police response was quick, mental-health workers were not available.

Knowing that the man was no danger to the public and wasn't suicidal, police simply backed off.

The man was sober the next day, and police officer Erin Briggs met with him at his house, had a long conversation and eventually put him in touch with the Veterans Administration to get the treatment he needed.

Police hope such mediation will become more frequent—and incidents in which officers deploy their weapons less frequent—under new policies and training, police said a news conference Thursday.

The Janesville Police Department sent six officers to a first-of-its-kind “de-escalation” training last month. They plan to train the whole department in using the tactics they learned over the next three years.

Chief Dave Moore said he expects the training will lead to fewer incidents in which officers have to use force—including deadly force—and more incidents in which mentally distressed people willingly get the help they need.

Mentally ill people who are threatening violence are common across the country.

“It's a critical issue in America,” Moore said.

Sometimes, it's a man on the street with a weapon, pleading for officers to shoot him, Moore said.

Those incidents too often lead to officers firing at a distraught person who charges at them with a weapon.

Moore said the new approach should create a change in the department's culture and will help keep officers and the public safer over the next 10 years.

The new tactics include softening one's tone of voice and slowing the pace of a conversation so the distressed person doesn't feel backed into a corner, said Sgt. Mike Blaser, one of the officers who attended the training.

The result should be that the person feels safe in approaching, rather than confronting, police, Blaser said.

Officers will be taught how to talk to those in crisis like a family member, said Officer Craig Klementz, another one of the six trainees.

People don't like police “barking” at them, Briggs said.

“People generally don't like being told what to do, and this allows them to have some pride and ownership in their decisions, even though eventually they're complying with what we asked them to do,” Briggs added.

The approach is "a total turnaround” from what Janesville police would have done in many situations 20 years ago, Briggs said.

“All in all, it's valuing the sanctity of human life,” Briggs added.

Blaser acknowledged that determining when to use de-escalation tactics and when to deploy force can be a difficult decision.

Lt. Tim Hiers said there will still be incidents in which officers need to draw guns and other weapons—such as when a suspect in an attempted homicide fled into a house Nov. 8 near Fourth Ward Park, resulting in a standoff, deployment of many officers and an armored vehicle, and an arrest of a juvenile who gave himself up after many hours.

This is nothing new for Janesville police, who in recent years have trained in strategies to calm tense situations and handle mental-health problems, but new training and policy will elevate this approach, Moore said.

The two-day training in New Orleans is called Integrating Communications, Assessment and Tactics, or ICAT. It was provided free of charge by the Police Executive Research Forum.

Janesville police spent $2,820 on travel, lodging and food, using part of an annual federal training grant.

Officers from about 150 law enforcement agencies, including Beloit, Madison, Milwaukee, Sheboygan and others from across the country and overseas, attended the training, the officers said.

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