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In wake of public outcry over shootings, LAPD training focuses on empathy

The scene was tense: Two Los Angeles Police officers approach a man yelling and screaming at the end of a cul de sac. He looks angry and aggressive as he paces back and forth in the middle of the street.

“I just got back two weeks ago,” he shouts. “Two weeks ago!” The man is an Iraq War veteran.

“Tell me about it,” an officer calmly asks. He is met with anger. “What are you trying to do? Don’t try to talk to me. Nobody understands what it was like over there.” 

“Sir, I’m here to help you,” the officer responds. He watches the man’s hands closely to see if he grabs a weapon.

The man is unarmed. He starts to calm down.

Suddenly, lights come on.

The two officers are standing in front of a screen inside the LAPD’s "force option" simulator.

This exercise is part of a one-week class, the latest effort by the LAPD to train cops how to de-escalate encounters with people who may be aggressive or mentally ill. The message here: Slow down and try to empathize with the person.

This training session comes just 10 days after the fatal shooting of Charly “Africa” Keunang on Skid Row. The 43-year-old Cameroonian man, a robbery suspect, is seen on videotape fighting with four LAPD cops as they tried to subdue him. Police say he tried to grab one of their guns, so they fired.

The shooting is under investigation by LAPD Inspector General and District Attorney.

The incident sparked angry protests – and comparisons to the killing of other unarmed black men, including Eric Garner in New York, Michael Brown in Missouri and Ezell Ford in South LA. Records show Keunang had been treated for mental illness in federal prison while serving a sentence for bank robbery.

The training is hardly the same as policing taught in the academy, where officers endure grueling physical training to be able to take down bad guys. The focus in the academy is on the "use of force continuum."

But in this empathy training, officers are coached to back away from the person, use your first name, employ humor, paraphrase what the person is saying.

It takes time, said Detective Jim Hoffman, one of the trainers.

“Once you determine there is no immediate threat, you can begin the process — and make no mistake, it’s a process — to de-escalate the situation,” Hoffman told the group of about three dozen hardened LAPD cops.

Unnatural Policing

It can be unnatural for a cop, said Officer Carlos Martinez, another trainer.

“When someone is coming towards you, we want to go towards them,” he said.

“For us to back up, it can be a sign of weakness," Martinez added. "It can be a sign we are giving in.”

In the Keunang incident, argues Skid Row activist Pete White of the L.A. Community Action Network, it's clear the LAPD officers acted too hastily.

“On the videotape, I saw an officer on each limb,” he said. “I saw that it was virtually impossible for Brother Africa to grab the gun and do any damage.”

He said the officers had another option.

“They could have continued talking,” White says.

A big caveat

But at the training class, Hoffman, one of the trainers, insists talking doesn’t always work. 

“Just like the recent shooting on Skid Row," he told the officers. "They’re responding to a 211 [robbery call]. There’s no time for, ‘Hi, sir, how are you?’”

Several officers in the class nodded their heads in agreement.

One of the officers, Hector Tejada, patrols Skid Row. He remembers Keunang.

A few months ago, Tejada asked him to remove his tent from a sidewalk and warned he'd be back to check. When Tejada returned later, it was still up.

Tejada said Keunang was aggressive and angry. The 10-year veteran decided to let it go.

“This guy is hard to talk to. I’m just going to leave him alone,” he said. It was a minor infraction.

He said he’s not sure what he would have done if he’d responded to the recent robbery call and Keunang had taken a swing at him.

“Lets say you are the officer,” he asked. “And he is trying to take your weapon. And he intends to use that weapon against you. What would you do?”

Not just theory

For 12-year LAPD veteran Alfredo Morales, deciding whether to draw his weapon is no theoretical exercise.

Two years ago, he shot a man in Echo Park. The man yelled "shoot me" and appeared to point a gun at him and his partner, according to an LAPD report. The man was holding a cell phone. He later died. Detectives believe it was a case of “suicide by cop,” Morales said.

Police Chief Charlie Beck and the Police Commission ruled the shooting was within policy.

Morales is among the roughly three dozen officers at this session. All but one of the participants are men, and almost all are beat cops. They're not part of the department’s vaunted specialized Mental Health Evaluation Unit.

So far, about 1,000 of the city's 10,000 officers have received the training, according to Sgt. Charles Dempsey.

In one exercise in the simulator, Morales was confronted with an old man shouting and waving something inside an abandoned bus.

“That moment is very difficult because it’s such a fluid situation,” he explained. “We need to decide if he’s a threat to ourselves, or the public, or both. Or a threat to himself.”

It turns out the man was holding a cane.

“I’m starting to see these people need help,” Morales says. “I didn't really see that when I was on patrol.”

Along with de-escalation techniques, he learned about schizophrenia, autism and obsessive compulsive disorders – issues often lurking behind difficult interactions. 

Aggressive cops

Peter Moskos, who teaches at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the techniques taught at this class only work if everyone uses them.

Too often, he said, a patrol officer may be bringing down the stress when a more aggressive “obnoxious” cop swoops in and makes a mess of things.

“This frustrates cops to no end,” said Moskos, a former Baltimore City police officer. “You could be de-escalating the scene, and someone in your squad shows up, and you go, ‘Oh, my god, now it's going to explode, because they just don't know how to talk to people.’ Because they don’t have that empathy.”

Moskos said that, in some cases, officers just panic. Especially rookie cops.

LAPD Sgt. Sandy Cline said he’s seen officers rush to seize someone too fast, prompting more aggression from the suspect.

“I think everybody — including the public — would like to see officers a little less hands-on, a little more of the attitude of trying to talk them to jail,” said Cline, who joined the LAPD in 1983.

"Split second judgments"

To be sure, police officers have wide leeway when it comes to using force.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Graham v. Connor that police actions must be judged not from the “20/20 vision of hindsight” but rather from the perspective of a “reasonable officer.” Judges and juries must consider the officer's training and acknowledge police make “split-second judgments” in “circumstances that are tense,” the court ruled.

An excerpt of that ruling hangs on a wall in the force simulator room.

But this class is not about teaching officers how much force the law allows, but rather teaching a more humane approach to suspects who may be struggling with mental or emotional issues, something the cops said they’re encountering more and more on the streets of Southern California.

Cline works the bicycle detail in Van Nuys. “It's one of the best jobs in the city,” he says.

Riding the streets, he interacts with a lot of people. He likes the idea of de-escalation, but he also offered a familiar refrain during the training: Officer safety comes first.

“Oh, it's paramount," he said. "I want myself, my officers, to go home safely every night.”

“But I also want the person we’re dealing with to be safe," he added."It's all about safety.”