How Phoenix Police Officers Are Trained To De-Escalate Situations

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Thursday, June 25, 2020 - 1:22pm

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Phoenix police headquarters
Christina Estes/KJZZ
The front entrance at Phoenix police headquarters.

LAUREN GILGER: The national spotlight is on police departments across the country right now. Protesters have been taking to the streets here and around the country for weeks now, calling for an end to police violence and accountability for officers. But how are officers trained to de-escalate situations and how do they approach use of force situations? For more on that, I spoke with Phoenix police commander and 30-year law enforcement veteran Anthony Vasquez. We spoke before the county attorney filed charges yesterday afternoon, and we started by talking about recruits. What kind of people does the department try to attract to its ranks? And does it matter that they're from the community they will police?

ANTHONY VASQUEZ: So we want to attract people to our departments and that come down to the academy that are going to represent the communities that they're working for. So with Phoenix, we're out and we're looking nationally and locally for people that have the standards and the right mentality on why they're here, why they're doing the job and what type of impact they're looking to make in the community.

GILGER: You mentioned this a little bit, but a lot of the research around this I know shows that the most effective kind of policing and the most fair policing comes from people who are invested in that community, who live in the community itself. Is that a priority going into this?

VASQUEZ: Well, currently, getting any applicant who meets the standards to come in has been a hurdle with all departments and we're looking nationally. The amount of applicants that are going toward law enforcement isn't as huge as it's been in the past. So while we do want the people that represent the communities, we're finding that a lot of agencies, especially locally, are competing for the same applicants.

GILGER: So let's talk a little bit about the training itself. So early last year, Commander Jennifer LaRoque from the Phoenix Police Department's training bureau said that the department was going to focus more on communication, critical thinking, decision making with a de-escalation component to include mental health training scenarios. Let's talk about that shift in focus. What has that looked like? And have you seen results in how officers are carrying out these kinds of encounters?

VASQUEZ: Well, we like to think that they made a huge impact, and it goes back to the amount of things we can expose them to in the academy should be helping them out on the street. But they have to apply that knowledge base that they've received in a practical setting. We have our crews for about 24 weeks of training and then we send them to the field training program. We keep trying to give them as much training as they can so they feel like they're prepared, they know the context, they have a good understanding of the direction they should be going when they respond to those calls. But a lot of it's going to be utilizing your resources and the experts in those fields to help you along.

GILGER: Yeah. Let's talk about kind of what's going on in the country right now in terms of some of the challenges and criticisms that police departments are facing. Different communities require different services from police departments, like what may be effective in one part of town might result in a negative outcome in another. Different ethnic communities have different perceptions about their relationships with police right now. And there's increased tension, obviously, with particularly African Americans and police right now in light of what's going on in the country. How do you teach to that? And what are the conversations like with officers about trying to mitigate those kinds of things?

VASQUEZ: You know, the important part is for our officers to go out there with open minds. I mean, I think that's the first thing. We want to work in partnership with the community. It's one of the big things, especially when you're out in the precinct, the small percentage of negative people or the people who are conducting criminal activity. It's such a small representation of the population and we have to be mindful. We're there for the people who are the law-abiding, the citizens that want to work with us to make sure that their neighborhoods are safe, that they can walk down the street, that they're not going to have their things taken. That's who we're there for. So we need to focus on that part of it because it's a collaboration between the two of us. It's not one working against the other one or in spite of them, because the only time we've ever made true impact in any program that we've worked in the 30 years I've been on, is when we have the community buy-in and their cooperation with it. Because we can believe we know what's going on in the neighborhood, but the residents are the ones that actually give us the information we need. And we can look at all the statistics and we can come up with a plan, but when they finally tell us, "Here the issues that are affecting us," it helps steer us in the right direction. So we make sure we're making the biggest impact for them.

GILGER: Two weeks ago, the Phoenix police chief announced the suspension of the usage of basically a type of chokehold that is used to restrain suspects. Officers are now being taught the, quote unquote, "compassion restraint technique." Can you tell us about the differences between those two approaches?

VASQUEZ: So the Phoenix Police Department and the academy itself has never taught anybody chokeholds, so it is something that I just want to address on it. We did do the carotid control technique, and it was restricting the oxygenated blood to the brain. Since I've been around, that was a technique that was approved and the police chief did eliminate it from a use of force option with us. Now, the nice part for our department and for the academy is that we had already started teaching different techniques. And when you're talking about the compassion restraint techniques that we have, we started working on that about five years ago. And basically what you're looking at is where we applied a reasonable amount of force or there wasn't a high probability of injury where we kept the interaction as safe as possible. But the technique gives us a lot of different options to where we can control individuals. And even if they're trained to escalate, it still puts us in a good position to where we can control them and get them into custody as quickly as we can.

GILGER: Are there other areas you think where the physicality of policing can be looked at and adjusted or reduced? Like the narrative and the complaints you're hearing from protesters around the country right now is that, you know, there's, there's too much reliance by police on use of force, particularly when it comes to certain demographics. Are there discussions about how training could reduce that, or do you think that that's a fair criticism?

VASQUEZ: You know, everybody's always going to look at things, and especially when you have something like the George Floyd, it was to an extreme and so unnecessary. So when the citizens are looking at it and they're saying, "That's something that we don't believe should be occurring," I don't know that any of us do. I think we're all united, and we all believe that in law enforcement too, where I can look at it and say: "I can't believe an officer actually did something like that." So we always want to look at best practices. We always have to have an open mind. There's always going to be something that comes along in the future that we're going to say: "We need to implement that" because we need to look at the benefits. I don't want to be teaching the things necessarily that I learned 30 years ago. I want to look at what's better and more effective that on the street to where we make sure that we keep officers safe and we keep our citizens safe at the same time.

GILGER: That is Commander Anthony Vasquez with the Phoenix Police Department. Commander, thank you so much for joining us.

VASQUEZ: Thank you so much for having me. 

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