ATLANTA — The deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta in the span of less than three weeks have led to a push in the U.S. for more training of police officers in how to de-escalate tense situations before they explode in violence.
“You’ve got to get cops to understand that it’s not a cowardly act, that backing off could save this person’s life,” said Tom Manger, a retired police chief in Virginia and Maryland and former president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association.
Officers undergoing de-escalation training are taught how to keep their cool, talk to people to calm them down, and use the least amount of force required. Typically the instruction includes exercises in which actors playing members of the public try to provoke officers.
“It’s very clear that our police officers are to be guardians and not warriors within our communities,” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said Monday in announcing she will require officers to continuously undergo such training in the wake of Brooks’ fatal shooting Friday.
Calls for increased de-escalation training have also come from politicians on Capitol Hill as well as from California’s attorney general, Michigan lawmakers and Houston’s police chief.
President Donald Trump signed an executive order Tuesday that he said would encourage better police practices and establish a database of officers with a history of excessive-force complaints. Officials said the order also would promote certification agencies that teach officers de-escalation techniques.
Such techniques have been around for years but have been embraced more strongly amid the growing movement to stop the killings of black people by police.
Floyd was seized by officers May 25 after being accused of passing a counterfeit $20 bill at a convenience store. He died after a white officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for several minutes.
Brooks, 27, was shot twice in the back Friday after police tried to handcuff him for being intoxicated behind the wheel of his car at a Wendy’s drive-thru.
Brooks was cooperative during more than 30 minutes of conversation before things rapidly spun out control. He wrestled with officers, snatched one of their stun guns and pointed it at one of them as he ran through the parking lot.
The officer who shot Brooks in the back was fired, and prosecutors are weighing charges against him and another member of the force.
Among other measures that have been adopted or are under consideration across the U.S. in the wake of the latest deaths: bans on chokeholds, making police disciplinary records public, releasing body-camera footage of shootings more quickly, and requiring officers to intervene when they see misconduct by fellow members of the force.
Manger said that in situations like the one that ended in Brooks’ death, officers should be taught to make high-pressure, split-second decisions that involve alternatives to force — for example, waiting for more backup to arrive, taking cover or retreating.
In the Atlanta case, the officer could have ducked behind a car or put enough distance between himself and Brooks so that the stun gun — which can reach only 15 feet — couldn’t hit him, Manger said.
Even in a situation where deadly force can be justified, it’s often not necessary, he said. Police officers need to operate from the mindset that deadly force is really a last resort to be used only when they or others are in grave danger, Manger said.
During the last round of protests surrounding the deaths of black people by police in 2014 and later, some departments embraced training on how to defuse tense situations. It got an endorsement from President Barack Obama’s task force on 21st century policing.
Some states continued to push for reform. In 2019, a California law allocated $10 million to use-of-force reforms including de-escalation training. Federal officers, too, have focused on decreasing their reliance on force through such techniques.
In New York City, the nation’s largest police department created a three-day de-escalation training program for officers on the job and also an academy seminar for new members of the force. It came after Eric Garner died in a police chokehold in 2014.
The course discourages verbal abuse and needless physical force. The message to every one of the department’s 36,000 uniformed officers: Keep cool. Officers learned how the volume of their voice, their presence and the way they address someone can immediately escalate a situation.