WATERTOWN — De-escalation, communication and understanding should be the cornerstones of police work, according to local law enforcement leadership.
As the national conversation around how police interact with the communities they serve continues, north country law enforcement leaders say that their departments’ training and policies are continually evolving to serve the public better.
It all centers on communication.
“Police work isn’t anything more than talking to people,” said Watertown City Police Chief Charles “Chip” Donoghue. “The people we interact with are human beings, and we have to treat them like human beings.”
City police procedures dictate that the use of force should be a last resort, and officers should strive to make the people they are interacting with feel comfortable and understand what is happening. However, Mr. Donoghue said that as each situation is different, there is no “textbook” way to handle an interaction between a civilian and an officer.
At the St. Lawrence County-David Sullivan Law Enforcement Academy at SUNY Canton, training on the use of force is ingrained in all programs. De-escalation is prioritized, and trainees are taught that their ultimate goal should always be to get voluntary compliance without the use of force.
“De-escalation is a cornerstone of the entire police academy curriculum,” said Alan P. Mulkin, chief of SUNY Canton’s University Police. Mr. Mulkin also oversees the law enforcement academy. “Our goal is to never have to use force to gain compliance, and our curriculum has de-escalation woven into it, understanding when a situation may go bad or require force and what techniques can be used to avoid that.”
Jefferson County Sheriff Colleen M. O’Neill said that her office uses a “force continuum,” which dictates what level of force a sheriff’s deputy may use when responding to a combative individual.
“Force is only used to a level that’s appropriate to the situation; that isn’t new,” she said. “The premise is that you use the least amount of force required to achieve the result that you’re looking for.”
Sheriff O’Neill said that in the George Floyd case, which has sparked much of the current conversation about law enforcement, the officer involved was completely out of line.
“The one thing I think about a lot after seeing that video from Minneapolis is that there had to be responsible, professional, compassionate people at the scene that I think should have stepped in and taken action,” Sheriff O’Neill said. “Why that didn’t happen, I don’t know. I would expect, if a civilian or another officer was acting that inappropriately, that my deputies would interfere, no matter what the consequences may be.”
Mr. Mulkin said that in the academy, officers are taught that if they see another officer using excessive force, they must immediately step in and stop it immediately.
“If they don’t intercede, they’re as culpable for the incident as the officer actually using excessive force,” he said.