OGDEN — De-escalating a tense situation is frequently easier said than done.
Ogden Police Chief Eric Young, addressing an online discussion on the use of force by police, said the people officers sometimes encounter are in mental or emotional states that hinder efforts to calm them down, regardless of their best efforts.
Officers receive plenty of training on how to defuse tense situations, Young said, “but there isn’t a magic word or an easy way to always ensure somebody will de-escalate. Some people are in mental states, physical states and other states. They just are not physically capable of de-escalating or psychologically capable of de-escalating regardless of what the influence of the officer is.”
Thursday’s discussion, hosted by the Ogden Diversity Commission, comes amid ongoing debate nationwide about the use of force by officers and the main speakers were Young, Roy Police Chief Carl Merino and Weber County Sheriff Ryan Arbon. It was held just two days after a Minnesota jury found former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of second-degree murder and other charges in the death last year of George Floyd while detaining him.
Though the Chauvin case wasn’t the focus of the forum — planned long before the verdict and one of several on local policing organized by Adrienne Andrews, chief diversity officer at Weber State University — it ties in. Young, though, said officers aim to avoid physical encounters.
“No officer wants to be involved in a deadly confrontation. No officer wants to be in a physical fight with somebody on the street and risk getting injured and not going home to their family or their spouse or their children,” he said. “We do everything we can to avoid physical confrontation.”
Merino echoed Young in addressing the challenges of handling a tense encounter, the particularities of those typically involved in the sort of incident that requires de-escalation techniques. Critics of police violence frequently push for an increased focus on de-escalation techniques as a guard against violent encounters.
“They usually have a mental health issue,” Merino said. Statistically, “a good number” of encounters that result in injuries or use of deadly force involve people with mental health issues.
He noted the education officers get to help them deal with the varied personalities and situations they’re likely to encounter — training in crisis-intervention and in recognizing mental health issues and those with autism. Officers also receive instruction in using words and discourse to defuse tense situations. But while training is important, he said, “I think we also have to have a realization that not everybody can be de-escalated.”
Arbon noted the role drones can have, not in patrolling, but in responding to potentially tense situations to help gauge the sort of law enforcement presence that might be needed.
“A lot of times (if) you have a really dangerous situation, it’s a whole lot safer to throw a drone up in the air to get the eyes on the scene,” he said. The video from a drone can help in not overreacting to an incident, potentially making things worse.
Beyond that, Arbon said policies in dealing with all sorts of situations continually face updating and review to stay with the times. Agency policy “is constantly being adjusted and changed,” he said.
All three officials put out a call to the public for input and involvement in law enforcement matters, particularly in light of the increased national debate on policing.
“My ask is make the time to be invested in public safety in your community,” Young said. “I want to hear from you. I want to know what your expectations are... I try to seek and understand where others are coming from and I’d ask others to do the same.”
Arbon said he tries to respond to the many messages he receives from the public. “For me, there’s nothing better than someone asking the question, having a true, sincere dialogue. Asking us the question, ‘Why?’” he said.
Though the Chauvin case didn’t figure heavily in Thursday’s discussion, it was the focus of another panel discussion on Wednesday, also moderated by Andrews. Seth Cawley, chief of the Weber State University police department, said the Chauvin case has forced him to reflect on policing.
“I think we have a lot that we can do to improve our processes and help our community, and one of the things that I want to do is start by listening and seeing how our community needs that help and doing what I can to provide it,” he said.
Leah Murray, a Weber State political scientist who also took part, was pleased with the verdict, but frustrated with the fact that such problems linger on. “I really thought by the time I was old we would have solved most of these problems,” she said.
Reporter Emily Anderson contributed to this story.