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San Francisco Police Credit De-Escalation Training For Fewer Use-Of-Force Incidents

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- San Francisco police are seeing a significant drop in use-of-force incidents, and officers are crediting an expanded training program that focuses on de-escalation.

According to city records, the number of times police have used force on citizens has declined 35 percent over the last three years. As for officer-involved shootings that resulted in deaths, in 2015 there were six, three in 2016 and three in 2015. There have been two so far this year.

Overall use of force cases are reported quarterly. Since the most recent data is from the 2nd quarter of 2018 we compared the numbers across the second quarters of 2016 – 2018, showing 925 overall uses of force in 2016, 823 in 2017 and 601 in 2018 and calculated that SFPD has seen a decline of 35% for overall uses of force.

Here's the numbers if you want to see them yourself

Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) has led to the significant drop in the number of times police have used force on members of the public, according to the police department. The training involves frightening scenarios based on real events with the goal of giving San Francisco police officers the skill set to defuse potentially deadly confrontations on the city's streets.

KPIX5 was invited to the San Francisco Police Academy for an exclusive look at the live CIT training which features police trainers portraying mentally ill people experiencing public breakdowns.

Raw Video Of SFPD Training Exercise

One training scenario features SFPD Officer Carlos Manfredi wildly banging on a metal container with a bat appearing to be a man suffering from delusions.

"Demons, the demons! I'm not going to let you kill me!" he yells as a team of officers slowly approaches. "12,233 demons in the box!"

Officers evaluate the situation and strike up a conversation with Manfredi.

"Sir, sir! What's wrong?" asks one officer.

"Th- th - demons in the box! They're trying to kill me!" Manfredi loudly stammers.

The officers recognize the bat as a potential weapon. But instead of moving in quickly and risking injury to all parties, they are training on evaluating whether the man is actually a threat to the public, or just lashing out at an object which he believes contains demons.

"I hear you. I'm here to protect you," an officer-in-training yells to Manfredi. "You don't need that bat anymore."

In their basic police training, officers are taught to use a continuum of force, which encourages escalation. If the subject doesn't immediately comply to a voice command, the officer would graduate to use a night stick, on to the use of bean bag guns or a taser, if available.

If the subject is still not complying, the situation could result in the use of deadly force - gunfire.

But as officers increasingly spend time on the street facing mentally ill people, they are recognizing that loud voice commands are not always effective. The older protocol of escalation of force can go downhill fast.

With CIT training, they are learning to de-escalate. They engage in conversations, while maintaining a safe distance and continuing to protect themselves. And officers are given leeway to let a situation take as much time as necessary to resolve.

"So I can say, 'Hi, my name's Joel, I'm a police officer I'd like to help you. What's going on?' said Joel Fay, a retired police officer and psychologist who assists SFPD in its CIT training.

"And you might say, 'Nothing, life is miserable.' But we're talking. And now it's a negotiation."

CIT training includes some de-escalation techniques that were previously only known to mental health professionals.

"They might hear what you're saying, but they're also hearing other voices," Manfredi said.

"So what we want to do is focus the attention to focus on that officer's words. 'Hey, listen to my voice, pay attention to my voice that's coming out of my mouth.'"

Expert Christopher Weaver Talks About SFPD Training Program

In another training scenario, a man waves a large butcher knife just as police respond to his house.

"Why are the cops here, Mom?? They're going to kill me, they're going to kill me!!" he yells.

The officers calmly begin a conversation with the man and his mother. They are trying to make a connection while keeping a safe distance away.

"My name is Danny with the San Francisco police department," the officer says.

"Danny? I'm James."

"Nice to meet you, James."

Since 2016, when a spate of police shootings led to the firing of the popular chief Greg Suhr, the expansion of the CIT program has led to fewer use-of-force incidents, as reported to the San Francisco Police Commission.

According to city records, there were six police officer-involved shootings in 2015 that ended with a fatal injury. In 2016 and 2017, there were three such shootings. So far in 2018, there have been two.

Overall use-of-force cases are reported quarterly. The most recent numbers are from the second quarter of 2018. Comparing numbers across the second quarters of 2016 – 2018, SFPD has seen a decline of 35% for overall uses of force.

"We've seen a decrease in the use of force. We have a decrease in officers getting hurt," said Lt. Mario Molina, SFPD's CIT coordinator.

An example of CIT being used in a real-life scenario was captured on cellphone video in May of 2017.

A man at the Jackson Street Safeway store was screaming, slashing at his own arms. Blood was everywhere.

Using their CIT, responding officers had their guns drawn to protect themselves, but they also kept at a safe distance. At one point, the officers calmly talked to the man about his family members. Eventually, officers made a peaceful arrest.

"There's a lot of talk about how to gain time and distance, slow a situation down," said Christopher Weaver, Ph.D, Director of Forensic Psychology at Palo Alto University who teaches officers in CIT.

"And I think some of these techniques come over into the realm of mental health professional. We only deal in these slowed down situations, but that's what we've been dealing with for a long time."

CIT is not new, it is just not available to the vast majority of officers in most police forces which only train a handful of officers and assign them to be the hostage negotiators.

The San Francisco Police Department, as a result of reforms instituted in 2016, has significantly expanded its training. Right now, 46 percent of the police force has had some level of CIT. The goal is 100 percent.

And the SFPD is the only police department in California that conducts practical team-based CIT, said Molina.

"The regimen teaches how to create a team of officers, how to respond as a team, how to create time and distance and establish communications with a person, if possible," Molina added.

Trainers make it clear that de-escalation works, but not always.

There are suspects who open fire at officers. And violent criminals who are determined not to go back to prison. There are suspects amped up on drugs, along with the very real phenomenom called "suicide by cop."

In 2011, a man walked into the SFPD Mission police station, lifted his shirt and showed a gun that later turned out to be fake. Officers reacted quickly and shot him to death. In his suicide note, the man wrote, "Please, don't blame yourself. I used you. I took advantage of you."

"When it comes to suicide by cop, some of those are very well thought out," said Fay, the retired officer and psychologist. "By the time the officer figures out what's going on, there's no room for maneuvering and the officer will generally go to lethal force."

But the CIT emphasizes that many police shootings could indeed be avoidable, if an officer shows empathy, uses active listening techniques and gives the suspect the ability to calm down and surrender.

In the training scenario where the man is carrying the butcher knife, he makes a lot of noise, which keeps the training officers on guard.

But the police team also learns from the man's mother that he is holding the butcher knife because he just likes the sensation of holding something in his hand.

"Right now, I need you to help me," the officer tells the knife-wielding trainer. "I need you to help me by putting the knife down, please."

Officers decide to replace the knife with the man's favorite stuffed animal, a raggedy red doll named "Terese."

It's a situation that could have ended in deadly force, but was successfully brought under control by de-escalation.

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