Last year, Raleigh police shot and killed two people in what many advocates argue were preventable incidents. This year, the department has introduced a de-escalation policy designed to prevent deadly confrontations between officers and civilians.
The RPD’s new de-escalation policy took effect late last year after the department hosted a series of “listening sessions” to get input from criminal justice advocates and the public, a process the city’s Black communities continually pushed for following the shootings.
Last year, in January police shot Daniel Turcios, 43, five times in front of his wife and two children. Body camera footage revealed Turcios, who didn’t speak English and couldn’t understand officers’ commands, was trying to walk away from police when he was first tasered in the back.
Then, in May, 37-year-old Reuel Rodriguez-Nunez was killed after police opened fire with more than 30 rounds following a confrontation outside a southeast Raleigh police station where Rodriguez-Nunez was throwing Molotov cocktails at police cars.
Body camera footage revealed that although several of the police officers surrounding Rodriguez-Nunez were trying to de-escalate the situation, ordering the man to stop and take his hands out of his pockets, one officer goaded Rodriguez-Nunez into continuing his attack just before police opened fire. Statements from Rodriguez-Nunez during the incident and from family members afterwards suggested he was in crisis and was attempting suicide by cop.
These shootings are part of a larger pattern of use of force by Raleigh police, advocates argue. Kerwin Pittman, a policy and program manager with Emancipate NC, says he wants to see the RPD’s attitude shift from a “warrior mentality” to a “guardian mentality.”
“De-escalation can’t be true de-escalation if you’re approaching the scene as if somebody is combative and you actually have to eliminate the threat. You have to approach it from a public health standpoint,” he says.
“Once you adopt that mentality, then you can roll into what actual de-escalation looks like. It’s taking time … slowing down the situation, but also, most importantly, de-escalating themselves. [Officers] have to take their feelings outside of this and lean into their training.”
De-escalation of force
De-escalation and how best to achieve it has become a popular talking point over the last few years as advocates push for police reform. Essentially, it means that instead of going straight for their taser or gun, police officers will first try to talk to people or communicate nonverbally. They may keep their distance, preventing a need to react to threats. They’ll do what they can to eliminate the need to use force.
RPD’s de-escalation policy follows this pattern, requiring officers to “assess the level of non-compliance and determine whether there is an immediate need to act.” A need to respond immediately, without attempting de-escalation, could be brought on by an “imminent threat of safety to the officer or others,” destruction of evidence, or a medical emergency, among other factors.
The policy also directly addresses scenarios like the ones in which police shot and killed Turcios and Rodriguez-Nunez. Per the policy, officers should consider whether a lack of compliance is “a deliberate attempt to resist or is the result of an inability to comply,” perhaps due to a language barrier or other factors (including physical limitations, developmental disabilities, or mental health crisis).
In addition, “an officer should not antagonize or bait a subject to act in a manner that will reasonably result in an unwarranted escalation,” the policy states.
Is the policy good enough?
The RPD’s new de-escalation policy is a step toward police reform, but some say it doesn’t go far enough. The final policy lacks specific detail and is open to misinterpretation by officers, argues Pittman. He is concerned officers still won’t be held accountable for their use of force, even with the new policy in place.
“When a policy lacks specifics about how you are supposed to operate, it leaves room for a lot of error. It leaves it up to the officers’ interpretation … and we know when they lean on their own interpretation, as we’ve seen in the past, they make mistakes,” Pittman says. “With de-escalation, you have to get it right. One time getting it wrong could cost somebody their life. The devil is in the details. If you have something that’s not descriptive, it’s a recipe for disaster.”
In an open letter sent in November, Emancipate NC requested nine changes to the draft policy based on the strong de-escalation policy that the Seattle Police Department uses, which is modeled on a policy from the Oregon State University Department of Public Safety. One request was that the RPD include “specific, descriptive, and step-by-step instructions for officer communication in a de-escalation scenario.”
For example, an officer could be instructed to “acknowledge the individual’s feeling” or cautioned that “warnings given as a threat of force are not considered part of de-escalation.”
Emancipate also asked that the RPD “emphasize that the use of force should be a last resort” and “set stronger expectations for how officers must attempt de-escalation.”
“Establishing de-escalation as a priority only ‘when time and circumstances reasonably permit’ is too vague and lends itself to willful misinterpretation,” the letter states.
The RPD didn’t respond to Emancipate NC’s proposed changes to the de-escalation policy, according to Pittman. He says he’s disheartened by the department’s lack of response to community input.
“If you’re going to come to the community and ask for input, but not take it into real consideration, then what was the point?” Pittman says.
The department has indirectly addressed some of the nonprofit’s concerns, specifically regarding de-escalation training and the ability of the department to ensure its officers are using de-escalation techniques.
Annual de-escalation training is required for all employees, per the new policy. That training will include specific examples of de-escalation techniques, based on the curriculum of the North Carolina Justice Academy—a training facility run by the NC Department of Justice under the oversight of Attorney General Josh Stein—according to Goodwin.
The policy also includes a provision that supervisors should assess ongoing de-escalation attempts and monitor employees’ use of de-escalation techniques. That provides an additional level of accountability for officers, according to RPD Captain Eric Goodwin.
This provision includes some caveats, however, like the fact that supervisors will assess ongoing field conflicts “when present” (which they sometimes aren’t) and refer an employee to more training if they’re found deficient during a use-of-force review, which is given after a use-of-force incident has already taken place.
RPD officials will review the policy annually so changes and amendments can be made. Pittman says he’s hopeful that the policy can be improved in the coming months or years.
“[The RPD] has said they’re open to revisions, and we’ll continue putting pressure on them to revise the de-escalation policy so they can get it right.”
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