A Lesson in De-escalation.
How HPD trains to prevent the worst

single-meta-cal October 21, 2016

A teenager is under suspicion for a crime committed in a low-income neighborhood. He matches the vague description given to police. A Huntsville Police officer calmly frisks the youngster, only to have a colleague come onto the scene and act gruff and provocatively.

The teenager, under the eyes of a dozen witnesses, is challenged to keep his cool, to offer the proper responses. Then, after a few minutes, the scene breaks up with everyone smiling.

This didn’t take place somewhere on the streets. It took place in a hot, airless room at a Huntsville recreation center and was merely an exercise in the Huntsville Police Department’s outreach program. It was lesson to young men and how they should react when encountering police, whether for something as innocuous as a broken taillight or serious as suspicion of a crime. They were learning about the rights they have, the rights of the officers and the best ways to avoid escalating what could be an already tense situation.

It’s an exercise that takes place across the city and across social strata, one of the aspects of the Huntsville Police Department’s Community Outreach program. According to HPD Chief Mark McMurray, there are six officers dedicated to the program.

It’s well-established that the last few years have seen increased friction between the communities and police departments. There have been some tragic mistakes in reaction.

Police and community share a two-way street, and McMurray is determined his department does its part to react properly and establish a relationship of harmony.

That’s why the Huntsville Police Department is putting considerable emphasis in pro-activity rather than reaction. Outreach events, whether mock scenarios or hosting block parties or raising funds to purchase bicycles for needy children, are important in engendering trust and respect in the community.

The HPD is taking a lead from – and taking advantage of – the City’s Huntsville Connect program, through which citizens report issues and concerns. It might be something as benign as barking dogs or loud mufflers or a malfunctioning street light. City officials monitor each post and assign the task to appropriate departments. Community relations officers address the problems that are funneled to HPD.

“These problems might not seem that important to me and you,” McMurray says, “but if you’re living in that neighborhood, they’re important to you. And if they’re that important to you, our response is important.”

Proper response to situations on the street is an essential element of good police work. McMurray says that is heavily emphasized in police academies for incoming officers and constantly reiterated to veterans. It has also become part of the method in gauging job performance.

HPD has drifted away from evaluations that stress quantity, as in tickets issued or arrests made.

“We look at the quality performance of their job,” McMurray says. There are metrics now to measure the number of complaints an officers might receive and supervisors are instructed to evaluate officers with a different philosophy.

Photo of Huntsville Police Officers

The use of body cameras has added an extra tool to assure good community relations. Like a coach reviewing game film with his quarterback, the video from cameras is used to show citizens involved in a situation how they might have escalated “a misunderstanding because it was in a stressful situation,” McMurray says. By the same token, the footage could also show an officer’s own culpability.

Video footage from HPD body cams is actually used in academy training to show future officers how certain situations were properly – or improperly  — handled.

Sometimes it’s all so simple, as McMurray says, as “just a smile and a wave.” Huntsville, says McMurray, “is a pleasant place to be a police officer.” But the police and community share a two-way street, and McMurray is determined that his department does its part to react properly and, most importantly, to establish a relationship of harmony.

Mark McCarter is a regular contributor for City Blog.