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How The Recent Attacks On Officers Are Affecting Police Training


Since the attacks on police in Baton Rouge and Dallas and recent police shootings of civilians, the White House has been meeting with police and civil rights leaders. But some officers are unhappy with policing changes the White House wants. Here's Baton Rouge Police Chief Carl Dabadie defending his agency's practices.


CARL DABADIE: We've been questioned for the last three or four weeks about our militarized tactics and our militarized law enforcement. This is why - because we are up against a force that is not playing by the rules.

MONTAGNE: For some reaction, we reached the head of Washington state's police academy, former Sheriff Sue Rahr. She says, after the Baton Rouge and Dallas attacks, police have a heightened awareness that they could be ambushed.

SUE RAHR: That's why, when we train police officers, we use the term have your head on a swivel. You need to always be paying attention to what's going on around you. You need to listen to your instincts if you come into a situation and something feels off or wrong.

MONTAGNE: And you're a member of President Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing. And one of the things you advocate is de-escalation. Can you explain what that is?

RAHR: De-escalation training involves a lot of focus on communication skills, on understanding human behavior, what motivates people to cooperate. But the part of de-escalation that often gets left out is the tactical side of it. And it's extremely important that when police approach a particular situation, they're always thinking about giving themselves cover. So I really want to make sure that there isn't a misunderstanding in the public that de-escalation is just something like talking nice to people.

MONTAGNE: An example, though, of the kinds of training police have gotten for decades for entering ambiguous situations, one thing officers are trained - that they should draw their guns if they are closer than 21 feet to someone who could be a threat. Advocates of de-escalation say you shouldn't always approach an unknown situation with guns drawn. But in the wake of Baton Rouge, let's say, doesn't that 21-foot rule seem like a pretty good idea?

RAHR: Well I went to - the 21-foot rule has taken on mythological proportions. And there is no such thing as the 21-foot rule. We don't train officers to pull your gun when you're within 21 feet. What the 21-foot comment is about is how quickly somebody can get to you and stab you before you have time to take out your weapon. So rather than, say, draw your gun when you're 21 feet away, instead what we focus the training on is don't get closer than 21 feet if you don't have cover, if you don't have options. And we try to give the officers different ways to think about keeping safe, keeping the person with the knife safe.

MONTAGNE: Well, then may I just ask, though, what is your response or even just your reaction to the quote we just heard from the police chief of Baton Rouge, Carl Dabadie, when he says this is reason why we used militarized tactics and we're a militarized law enforcement?

RAHR: Police departments don't have to choose one or the other. They have to appropriately balance and integrate both approaches. At our academy, we put a lot of emphasis on recruits seeing themselves as guardians in their community. And we talk about that being their primary identity, is they see themselves as a protector. But we also talk about - we will spend a great deal of time training you how to use warrior skills because you need warrior skills in order to protect yourself and the community when it's called for.

MONTAGNE: Do you have any - I would say almost - advice on what officers or police departments can do, in the wake of these killings especially, to increase their safety?

RAHR: I would say that what they need to do probably feels counter-intuitive, and that is get closer to the community. Do anything they can to increase conversations, rapport, because what they will discover is, if they can't have a partner with them to be looking out for them, they can certainly have the community looking out for them.

MONTAGNE: Well, thank you very much for joining us.

RAHR: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: Sue Rahr heads the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, and she's also a member of President Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.