U of T report exposes patchwork of police de-escalation training in Ontario
|Toronto Star 05 May 2018 at 15:46|
Toronto police Const. Ken Lam, right, received worldwide recognition for his peaceful arrest of accused van killer Alek Minassian, left.
By Wendy Gillis Crime Reporter
Sat., May 5, 2018
The peaceful apprehension of accused murderer Alek Minassian moments after the city’s worst mass killing in memory has shone a spotlight on a crucial skill in modern policing: de-escalation.
As Toronto police Const. Ken Lam received worldwide recognition for his no-force arrest after last month’s North York van rampage, police leaders including Chief Mark Saunders lavished praise in equal parts on Lam and his de-escalation training — education that’s become central to reducing fatal police encounters.
But a new government-commissioned report exposes what police experts have long warned: de-escalation training is widely inconsistent across the province, with the quality, amount and type of instruction dependent on time and resources that many police services lack.
The patchwork leaves some officers less equipped to calmly resolve tense situations, meaning even partners “sitting side by side in the same car” may not have the same skill set, one training expert told the Star.
Also revealed in the report is the alarming perception that the Ontario Police College, where every new recruit attends mandatory training before being sworn in, is failing to teach basic de-escalation, with instruction on the vital skill “superficial” and lacking in complexity.
The report, prepared by a team of researchers at the University of Toronto Mississauga, concludes that the government should standardize and increase training provincewide. Its recommendations include developing mandatory annual de-escalation training for every sworn officer and a revamped, evidence-based curriculum at the Ontario Police College.
“Based on research, we recommend a paradigm shift in policing: a movement away from a focus only on weapons and tactics to a focus on the individual officer,” reads the report, led by psychologist Judith Andersen, who studies police training and officer stress response.
Steve Summerville, a former Toronto police officer and longtime use-of-force instructor who was not involved in the report, has been long raising the alarm about training, saying provincial standards focus far too much on the wrong aspects of policing.
“There is more proficiency demanded of your expertise with a firearm than there is with talking people down,” Summerville said in an interview.
“The areas that we use the least are mandated the most.”
Andersen’s report was commissioned by the provincial Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services in the wake of multiple coroners inquests into police-involved deaths, which have consistently called for improved training. It also responds to a damning 2016 report by Ontario ombudsman Paul Dubé that homed in on training as a root cause of police-involved deaths, saying there was an “urgent” need for change.
“It is literally a matter of life and death,” Dubé said when the report was released. Police training, he said, has been “neglected in this province for too long.”
The ministry has already announced plans to establish a “new police framework” this summer that will see enhanced de-escalation training delivered consistently across the province, though no details have been released.
Changes are expected to include increasing the duration of basic training at the Ontario Police College. Dubé’s report found Ontario constables receive far less training than elsewhere in Canada — 12 weeks compared with 24 for RCMP recruits.
Dorijan Najdovski, a spokesperson for the ministry, said Andersen’s report is being “carefully considered … as we continue to move forward with addressing each of the ombudsman’s recommendations.” It will be used by the ministry’s expert committee, which was established to create a new training curriculum, he said.
In the policing context, the term de-escalation refers to tactics intended to resolve a hostile or tense encounter by using the least force possible, ideally none. Training on de-escalation emphasizes verbal communication, encouraging officers to, where possible, build a rapport by asking the person questions, or telling them that they are there to help.
Officers are discouraged from taking actions that might ratchet up tension, such as yelling or pulling out their gun prematurely, and instructed to change their approach if necessary — for instance, not repeating the same directive such as “drop the knife” if it’s not working. Throughout, officers are taught to seek time and distance, two central de-escalation aids.
De-escalation tactics can be applied in any encounter, but are especially important during police interactions with people in crisis — such as someone who is experiencing a mental health crisis, or is drunk or high on drugs.
Research shows training is most effective when it is taught in a combination of ways, starting with traditional classroom lectures through to what’s called “scenario-based learning,” which includes instructors or actors role-playing situations often inspired by real encounters.
Scenario-based learning gives officers an opportunity to respond to realistic situations, and introduces the real physical stress responses in police that can help them retain their training, rather than having stress first experienced in real-world encounters and interfering with performance, Anderson writes.
The report recommends the province require scenario-based learning as part of annual training.
But a review of training at 19 police services across Ontario, including urban, rural and First Nations agencies, found there are significant hurdles to providing de-escalation training, predominantly scenario-based learning.
In general, the report says, researchers saw positive signs, including that de-escalation was “the most prominent and consistent theme” in training observed in 2017. The majority of agencies across Ontario want their officers to receive additional training on de-escalation, and larger police services are beginning to offer their own.
That includes Toronto police, where an extra day of instruction on de-escalation was added to its in-service training following the by Toronto police Const. James Forcillo in 2013.
However, some of these training initiatives are taking “bits and pieces” of their curriculum from other programs, some of which may not be based on tested research.
“Hence the need for the ministry to provide standardized curriculum,” reads the report.
At other police services, going above and beyond the ministry’s standard annual recertification, which focuses on weapons training, is seen as a “luxury.”
“It was often stated that the use of force trainers were ‘doing the best they can’ under their current financial and staffing restrictions,” the report states.
At one unnamed police service, an “unexpected cost” meant there was no budget for training in 2017, so the bulk of it was delivered via a PowerPoint presentation, with a scenario intended to teach de-escalation training “lasting about two minutes.”
Andersen and her team conducted more than 2,000 interviews with police officers, including use-of-force instructors — the latter uncovering a “common opinion” that the Ontario Police College is “not meeting its training obligations” when it comes to de-escalation.
“The training recruits receive is ‘superficial’ at best and many felt it was lacking in depth and complexity,” the report states. “It was not uncommon to hear use of force trainers state ‘the college needs a complete overhaul.’”
A full examination of the training provided at the Ontario Police College was not within the scope of Andersen’s report, but it recommends a thorough, scientific review be conducted followed by the development of a new curriculum.
Terry Coleman, a former Moose Jaw police chief who is now a public safety consultant, says he’s heard similar criticisms of the college for years. It’s vital that a proper foundation for policing be built during basic training, he said.
“If we don’t start off police officers in the right way, we can’t expect them to continue in the right way,” Coleman, who was not part of the review, said in an interview.
Both he and Summerville applauded the central recommendation that de-escalation training be required and standardized.
As it stands, Summerville said, “two officers, sitting side by side in the same car, may or may not have the same level of training,” presenting a safety risk to both the officers and the public.
Without provincial de-escalation standards, the members of the public cannot know what they will receive if they seek police help.
“If you call 911 because of family member is in distress, you have to say to the dispatcher, please only send officers who have received de-escalation training.”