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Police De-Escalation Techniques Validated In New Jersey County


Video shot in Camden, N.J., shows a man with a knife. He's waving that knife and is confronted by police.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Sir, drop the knife or I will tase you.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Go back inside.

INSKEEP: This is the kind of video that might have gone viral if the incident had ended violently. It didn't. No shots were fired, and no headlines were made. Camden County police consider this a validation of the de-escalation tactics that they've been promoting. Here's NPR's Kevin Leahy.

KEVIN LEAHY, BYLINE: So are we here right now?

CHRISTOPHER DEVLIN: We're here. This is the location.

LEAHY: We are at Broadway and Martin Luther King in the middle of Camden. The city struggles with high crime, lots of drugs and guns. But the county police department has been working really hard to improve its image. Officers are hoping to recast themselves as guardians rather than warriors. I'm here with two of them.

DEVLIN: I'm Officer Christopher Devlin.

CABRIA DAVIS: Officer Cabria Davis.

LEAHY: We're here because this is where that call came in last November.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Is anyone else in the area? (Unintelligible) male with a knife.

LEAHY: Officer Davis was on this sidewalk when a man high on PCP burst out of a restaurant holding a steak knife.

DAVIS: You know, he starts, like, jabbing in our direction with the knife, like...

LEAHY: Davis' first reflex...

DAVIS: Let me go to my gun. In case he tries to lunge at me, I have to have some type of defense, which is nerve-racking because you got a hundred different things and you got to make a split-second decision at that time. You're like, OK, do I do this?

LEAHY: Davis relied on her training. She knew that to de-escalate this situation she really had to slow things down.

DAVIS: You know, I don't want to take this man's life if there's another way to do this. Let me put it away and try another approach. Let us try to get him to an area that we know we can control him to a certain extent and use whatever other options we have.

LEAHY: Officer Devlin showed up as backup.


DEVLIN: I got him. Drop the knife.

LEAHY: That's him on the video taking charge.

DEVLIN: You always want one person to be talking because you get voices from all over the place, it's going to confuse somebody even more.

LEAHY: Other officers cleared the area ahead of the man with the knife to protect bystanders and remove anyone who might have provoked him. They surrounded him but loosely.

DAVIS: You got six, seven officers rushing one person, that might escalate his behavior.

LEAHY: And they took their time. The slow foot chase eventually ended when the man just dropped the knife.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Get on the ground. Get on the ground. Get on the ground. Get on the ground. Get on the ground.

LEAHY: Davis and Devlin earned officer of the week honors for the way they handled the arrest. Across the country, big-city departments like Los Angeles and Philadelphia are starting to draw attention to officers who have shown restraint in the line of duty. They're giving them medals. So it seems like we're on the edge of a big change in policing, right?

CONSTANCE RICE: The academy training on paper looks reasonable.

LEAHY: Constance Rice is a civil rights attorney. She advises President Obama on policing. She's interviewed hundreds of young officers, many of whom told her they were initially taught one thing...

RICE: But as soon as they get in the squad car with their first training officer who's a grizzled old sergeant, well, they told me forget all that [expletive] we learned in the academy. They're going to teach us how to survive on the street.

LEAHY: Back at Camden County police headquarters, they're aware of that challenge. Lieutenant Kevin Lutz, the chief instructor, says a core group of veteran officers serve as mentors to new recruits. He also said not every situation can be de-escalated. At times, his officers will have to use force, even deadly force. But if they've built a strong enough track record of showing restraint...

KEVIN LUTZ: When these serious incidents happen, we now have credibility with the community.

LEAHY: That credibility, he says, can't be overvalued. Kevin Leahy, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Leahy

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