Poulsbo police put their de-escalation training to use in a video shared by Chief Ron Harding at a recent Public Safety Committee meeting.
Harding walked the committee through the video explaining the actions the officers took that transformed the situation from one that could have ended tragically to one that ended with getting the person connected to resources for mental and physical health.
The incident occurred March 30 at Murial Iverson Williams Waterfront Park in Poulsbo and was recorded on officer Bryan Kunz’s body camera. Due to an ongoing case involving the person in the video, it has not been shared with the public.
Kunz and officer Aubree Pouchet responded to a call about the disturbance, which involved a man known to the Poulsbo police to have a history of mental health and substance abuse issues.
The man was allegedly yelling and screaming, scaring park visitors. When officers arrived he tried to escalate the situation by using inappropriate language and telling the officers to “shoot him.” Using what he has learned in Crisis Intervention Training, Kunz tries to shut down the language but also ascertain where the subject lives and what kind of assistance he needs through asking questions.
“You see a mental shift with the subject as he begins to understand that he’s not going to create a confrontation, ” Harding explained.
As Kunz and Pouchet continue to work with the subject, after another call other law enforcement units arrive. However, the new call goes out with a detail that had the potential to fundamentally change the outcome-the suspect had a hatchet in his back pocket.
“Now that that has been reported over the radio, we have county and state patrol units responding, to back up what they have heard broadcast as an interaction with someone carrying a weapon,” Harding said.
One of the units pops out of a vehicle carrying a shotgun and pointing it at the subject, yelling for him to “drop the axe,” nearly unravelling the de-escalation progress that Kunz and Pouchet had made.
Harding attributed that to a lack of a supervisor to act as a mediator between the Poulsbo officers, the suspect and the other agencies.
“The problem with this is, our officers have been doing the interacting, we have two officers on duty, and they’re both here, there are no other resources in Poulsbo at this moment. The county has arrived and now the State Patrol has arrived and in all of these three agencies on this scene, there is no supervisor,” Harding said.
“If we had a supervisor on the scene right now that person’s job would be to take a 10,000-foot view and manage the outside of the scene and take control of the resources that are arriving. Our officers are engaging with the subject, they don’t have time to manage the scene because they are managing him… This is how things could quickly escalate.”
The subject listens to the officer who tells him to drop the axe but then continues to yell and curse at the officer to shoot him. Minutes later, Kunz and Pouchet are able to bring the man under control, having him focus on them and not the other officers.
Harding highlights that the axe is important to the suspect because he is homeless, and it is an important tool for his survival.
“The most important thing in his world right now is, now he doesn’t have a tool that he needs. It’s not his weapon, it’s his way to chop wood, his way to build a fire, its part of his survival plan,” Harding said.
The focus on the axe allows the officers to reestablish a line of communication with the suspect to find out where he is living/staying and what other kinds of resources he may need.
“The officers are doing everything they’ve learned from CIT, and it’s not pretty but this is not a classroom setting, this is what it looks like in real life,” Harding said.
Poulsbo Mayor Becky Erikson has mandated that all Poulsbo police officers participate in the 40-hour CIT training with the goal that all will have taken it by the end of the year.
To that end, Kitsap County is going to be offering three 40-hour CIT training sessions at the Poulsbo Fire Department over the coming months, one of which will be law enforcement working in tandem with Poulsbo firefighters, who often respond to similar calls.