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New way of policing: Fayetteville police aim to de-escalate encounters

Sometimes, Fayetteville’s Chief Police Harold Medlock says, he can’t sleep, anxious there will an officer-involved shooting.

“I wake up at night worried about that,” he said.

After the riots in Ferguson, the protests in Chicago and the looting in Baltimore, every chief knows the potential for an explosion.

Since 2013, Fayetteville police officers have been involved in five shootings. None of those incidents escalated into citywide tensions.

But Medlock isn’t waiting for a problem to erupt in his city. Last year, he opened the department to an outside review of use of force, and he has ordered training for officers on how to defuse conflicts, even when they are dealing with people who are armed.

Under the new emphasis, training consultant Harry Dolan told a roomful of 30 Fayetteville police officers earlier this month they should forget the old-school ideas of using muscle and shouting when encountering a belligerent person.

“Our training tape is running out,” said Dolan, a 58-year-old retired Raleigh police chief. “You have been taught: You ask them; then tell them and make them.”

Instead, Dolan said, officers should think like the Greek philosopher Aristotle: Be polite, relying on one’s ethics.

“Don’t debate with me, if you want to de-escalate me,” Dolan said.

If an ethical appeal doesn’t work, Dolan said, use logic, then try the art of persuasion.

“Treat them with dignity and respect,” Dolan said. “Because I’m a pro, and I also know that’s what human beings want.”

Medlock said the additional training and the federal review will help his department reduce incidents of physical force that can turn deadly. The seven-month review, released in December, was overseen by the Community Oriented Policing Services Office of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Medlock said a fresh, independent look at his agency was needed.

“For us to open ourselves up to outsiders, to the feds … has allowed us to expose all that we do to their review – but also to the public’s review,” said Medlock, 58, who left Charlotte in early 2013 to take over the Fayetteville Police Department.

The federal review, which covered the majority of Medlock’s first two years in Fayetteville, found several good policing practices but said more improvement was needed. Its authors documented 49 “findings” – issues his department should address – and made 76 recommendations. In their research, they interviewed police officers and residents and examined 137 incidents of police using force, 23 citizen complaints and almost 68,000 traffic stops during that two-year period.

Fayetteville is not unique. Last year, the federal Community Policing office announced either the start or completion of similar reviews in nine other cities, including Philadelphia, Milwaukee, San Diego, Tampa and St. Louis, Missouri.

Preliminary figures for last year are encouraging, Medlock told the City Council in January: Police used force 46 times, down 11.5 percent from the prior year, and there were no officer-involved shootings in 2015.

Medlock shared an example of the new de-escalation policies having an effect. According to Medlock and a police report, a 24-year-old man on Jan. 24 had a handgun and was threatening suicide in an apartment off Rayconda Drive in western Fayetteville. Three officers, Medlock said, were able to disarm him without injury to anyone, and he was taken to a hospital for a mental health evaluation.

The federal review said 22 percent of people who encountered force by Fayetteville police in 2013 and 2014 were mentally ill, and officers need better awareness of such illnesses.

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