Report: San Francisco police peacefully resolve 99.9% of crisis-related calls

Originally published on the Force Science Institute websiteRepublished here with permission.

By Lewis “Von” Kliem, MCJ, JD, LLM

If you have read the San Francisco Police Crisis Intervention Team 2020 Police Commission Report, you would be forgiven for thinking there was a misprint. Of the nearly 50,000 annual crisis-related calls for service, the San Francisco Police Department used force only 51 times. That’s a use of force rate of 00.1%.

The SFPD Team recognized the value of having a structure and common language for evaluating use-of-force incidents.
The SFPD Team recognized the value of having a structure and common language for evaluating use-of-force incidents. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Even with 2,800 people being detained for mental health evaluations (6% of the crisis-related calls), only 44 were ultimately arrested (.08% of the crisis calls); and those were for felony offenses and warrants. Still, non-escalation, de-escalation and persuasion during mental-health-related incidents are some of the most complex, time-consuming and challenging engagements. Under these conditions, the San Francisco police officers were able to resolve 99.9% of their crisis-related calls peacefully!

Force Science (FSI) instructors Dr. John Azar-Dickens and Inspector Chris Butler (Ret.) read the commission report with particular interest. The SFPD CIT Unit completed a 20-hour Force Science De-Escalation Course and used the commission report to highlight the Force Science concepts that have become critical to their use of force reviews.

Dr. Azar-Dickens, a key developer of FSI’s de-escalation course, took note: “The SFPD CIT team is one of the most sophisticated and effective law enforcement crisis intervention teams I have ever seen. Their 2020 report to the police commission features compelling evidence of their continued effectiveness.”

Dr. Azar-Dickens is not the first to recognize the effectiveness of the SFPD CIT program. In 2019, the California Police Officer’s Association presented the SFPD CIT Unit with the Award of Distinction for Excellence in CIT Training and Crisis Response. Despite the accolades, the SFPD Crisis Intervention Team remains committed to the constant improvement and effectiveness of their tactics and responses. As such, they engage in a critical assessment and reporting of all crisis-related use of force incidents – hoping to better understand these interactions and find ways to further ensure public and personal safety.

Looking at Both Sides

As part of their use of force review, the SFPD team looks at both sides of any use of force interaction for conditions that might interfere with effective de-escalation and persuasion: “Oftentimes an officer’s decision-making process regarding use of force is considered primarily as influenced by the officer[’s] critical abilities, skills, tactics, and ethics. However, it is also imperative to consider and review the behavioral dimensions of the involved subject, and how an officer’s attempts at de-escalation may or may not be feasible given the subject’s state of mind or thought process.” [1]

To assist in their review, the SFPD CIT Unit applies two critical concepts from the Force Science De-Escalation Training for Law Enforcement: the “TEB” Model of subject evaluation and the role of “discretionary time” in de-escalation and persuasion.

[Access additional resources on police mental health outreach programs

Thoughts, Emotions, Behaviors (TEB)

Dr. Azar-Dickens explains the TEB model: “When someone is in crisis, their thoughts, emotions and behaviors provide important clues to officers working to peacefully resolve the incident. As noted in the SFPD Commission report, noncompliant, high emotion people are precisely who de-escalation tactics are designed to serve. When these people are thinking clearly, they are better able to participate in the de-escalation process. However, people under the influence of drugs and certain psychological conditions may experience distorted perceptions and be unable or unwilling to de-escalate. In those cases, officers are taught to assess and use the available time to their advantage.”

Officer Elizabeth Prillinger of the SFPD CIT Field Unit commented on the importance of Dr. Azar-Dickens’ TEB Model: “The TEB model is critically important because as a society we have become accustomed to holding law enforcement officers uniquely accountable for their decision-making abilities and actions, and oftentimes the behavior and mindset of the subject is not fully considered or evaluated. The TEB model helps officers also consider the mindset and abilities of the subject in crisis, who may or may not be able or willing to accept de-escalation strategies based on their thought process, which may be impaired.”

Discretionary Time

Senior Force Science instructor Chris Butler is particularly impressed with the SFPD results: “The ability to apply a de-escalation approach to a person-in-crisis event requires that officers first stabilize the scene and establish tactical control. The training that SFPD personnel received at Force Science was designed to reflect the tactical truth that distance gives us time and time gives us options. The incredible outcomes that SFPD has achieved reinforce the importance of tactical decision-making that allows officers to create and maintain discretionary time. What might be easy to miss when looking at the SFPD success is that, although force was used in 51 instances, 35% of those cases involved persons in crisis who possessed a weapon or other dangerous object. That means, even in cases where force is ultimately used, de-escalation and effective use of discretionary time can enable problem-solving approaches that successfully resolve these incidents and saves lives.”

The SFPD Crisis Intervention Team recognized discretionary time as a critical factor in use of force decision-making: “When officers have discretionary time to prepare for an informed engagement with a subject, they are at a great advantage in terms of ensuring officer safety, scene safety, public safety, and the well-being of the subject. In emergency circumstances, when incidents are unfurling rapidly and there is an immediate or imminent safety concern, officers may have limited or no discretionary time to prepare. As such, officers are compelled to act immediately to stop danger, prevent a violent crime, or to deter further negative consequences.” [2] 

Added Value

Beyond the tactical benefits that realistic de-escalation training can provide, the SFPD Team recognized the value of having a structure and common language for evaluating use-of-force incidents: “Officers are expected to use de-escalation in the field and if use of force is reported they are required to acknowledge whether de-escalation was used.”

The report continued, “The officers should avoid boilerplate language but rather speak plainly about what they tried to use as de-escalation, and whether discretionary time was feasible, and whether it was possible to create time and distance.” “When feasible officers should include descriptions of the subject’s behavior, statements, reactions – especially when subjects are not responding to de-escalation.” [3]

Dr. Azar-Dickens commented on the SFPD Crisis Intervention Team’s use of Force Science training and the TEB model that he created: “Their involvement with FSI has been a ‘win-win.’ SFPD’s Crisis Intervention Team has taken our work and uniquely integrated it into their exceptional program. Their experiences provide us with important data that serves to validate and reinforce what we believe are the most effective strategies for de-escalation in crisis encounters. They recognized, as have we, that the best approach to de-escalation is to focus on the fundamental elements of human existence – thought, emotion, and behavior – rather than relying on unreliable diagnostic classifications. With this approach to training, officers are much better prepared to handle crisis calls, recognize when de-escalation remains a viable option, and, if the person in crisis failed to de-escalate, clearly explain why de-escalation may not have been effective. We are impressed with the work of the SFPD CIT Unit and look forward to sharing and incorporating their lessons learned into our training.”

Staying Focused

Lieutenant Mario Molina, the Coordinator of the SFPD Crisis Intervention Team program, is proud of their training, “…as of December 2020 over 96% of SFPD is trained in Crisis Intervention Threat Assessment and Field Tactics, and over 52% have received Certification status in Crisis Intervention Training. Our CIT Training Sergeants, Sgt. Donald Anderson and Sgt. Laura Colin, have implemented hundreds of classes in the last few years and have truly fortified our officers with the highest degree of law enforcement crisis intervention training.”

Although extremely proud of their programs, Lt. Molina was still quick to return focus to the collective excellence of San Francisco Police Officers: “While the statistics are compelling, our officers represent crisis intervention at its best. It is in their humanity, and everyday real-life applications of de-escalation and strategic field tactics that we are able to see such profound results.”

SFPD CIT Annual Report

References

1. CRISIS INTERVENTION TEAM ANNUAL REPORT, 2020 SAN FRANCISCO POLICE DEPARTMENT POLICE COMMISSION REPORT.

2. Report at 27.

3. Report at 29.


About the author

With nearly 30 years in the criminal justice profession, Lewis “Von” Kliem, MCJ, JD, LLM, worked as a civilian police officer, attorney, educator and author. Von is the executive editor of Force Science News and co-owner of Von Kliem Consulting, LLC, where he trains and consults on constitutional policing, use of force analysis, crisis communications and trauma-informed interviewing.  

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