The call came into 9-1-1 from a Spokane YMCA last October: A middle-aged man was threatening to break the kneecaps of an eight-year-old, because he said the boy could “ruin my NBA career.”

Corporal Jordan Ferguson of the Spokane Police Department responded, fully aware of the suspect’s antagonistic and unpredictable behavior. Ferguson’s body camera footage shows what happened next.

In the lobby of the YMCA, an employee first describes the man’s erratic statements. Ferguson tracks the man to the gym, who then walks away yelling. Rather than restraining the man immediately, Ferguson asks him questions and listens carefully and calmly, taking his time as the man vented and eventually admits to attacking several women on the local Centennial Trail earlier that month. The encounter resolved without hands-on force, in part because Ferguson had studied crisis intervention and motivational interviewing. Both are designed to help mitigate the aggressiveness of someone with mental illness.

“We were ready that this might be a violent struggle or we’d have to use some physical force,” says Ferguson. “However, using the motivational interviewing not only calmed him down, but we had him agree to get psychological help and had him agree to let us put handcuffs on.”

Following high profile, tragic shootings and assaults by police around the country, demand has grown for new training methods and better ways to handle tense encounters. Police require better tools—like crisis intervention training—to de-escalate confrontations in the communities they serve, especially when they interact with people with mental illnesses or when there’s racial tension.

Ferguson and other Spokane police officers learned intervention skills from, among others, faculty at Washington State University Spokane, who in turn have begun to research the effectiveness of the training. Meanwhile at WSU Pullman, criminologist David Makin ’12 PhD studies how body cam footage and realistic, relevant scenarios can help train police officers to more effectively handle interactions in communities of color and interactions with those experiencing mental health crises.

The stakes are high. Dash cams, body cams, and smartphones are spotlighting the use of force by police in ways society has never before seen. “We have to train officers that they have other tools,” says Makin. “A service revolver is not a compliance device.”


Outcomes don’t always work out positively. The complexity of what officers face each day can easily devolve into deadly force. Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training was born from just such an encounter in 1988, with the fatal shooting of a man with a history of mental illness and substance abuse by a Memphis, Tennessee police officer.

“You can’t ensure a good outcome even when someone does everything right. You can do everything right and it still turns out as a tragedy. Other times you really screw it up and everything turns out well,” says Bryan Vila, a criminal justice professor at WSU Spokane and a veteran police officer.

To improve the odds, criminal justice researchers Vila and Stephen James ’15 PhD, along with Matthew Layton, a psychiatrist and clinical associate professor with the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine, work with the Spokane Police Department (SPD) on intervention training. Vila and James examine the impact of such training on officer behavior in the WSU Spokane Simulated Hazardous Occupational Tasks lab, which measures performance by police officers in simulated operational tasks such as distracted driving simulations and deadly force. Vila and James also examine the effects stressors, such as fatigue, have on officer performance.

The vivid—so realistic it makes an onlooker’s heart race—deadly force simulator that Vila demonstrates, as he wields a laser-equipped pistol and faces down an armed criminal on video, punctuates the split-second decisions officers must make.

Fateful decisions in a very real situation brought CIT to the fore in Spokane. On March 18, 2006, police responded to an erroneous report that Otto Zehm, a 36-year-old mentally disabled janitor, had stolen money from an ATM. The officers beat Zehm with batons and shot him with Tasers, then bound his ankles to his wrists. Zehm lapsed into a coma and died two days later without ever regaining consciousness.

Following the death, which was eventually ruled a homicide, Layton was asked to do just four hours of mandatory mental health training for the SPD and the county sheriff’s department. The officers were skeptical at first.

“I started at 8:15 and at 8 the officers had their weapons check. So I start this training and I have 50 officers with all their weapons on the table when I start,” says Layton. “A big bald guy in the back says, ‘All this mental health stuff is subjective. I could pump six rounds in your chest from back here and say the voices told me to do it, and get away with it.’

“I said, ‘Why don’t you tell me how you really feel about being here.’ Everybody laughed and exhaled. It was so tension-packed. I had to establish rapport with every group, and have them understand I did not want to turn them into social workers, but try to figure out when their usual approaches are not working.”

Full CIT came in 2012 as a result of a civil lawsuit by Zehm’s family, requiring 40 hours of training for the whole force. It had never been done on such a large scale in the United States, and offered not just a new technique for officers, but a research opportunity on the effectiveness of CIT.

The course, taught by mental health professionals like Layton, showed officers how to identify key symptoms of mental illness and had them practice de-escalation techniques. The goal is to get mentally ill or addicted people the help they need instead of incarceration.

James took CIT to the next level, by analyzing what makes crisis situations difficult for first responders. While CIT has been proven to increase officer empathy and lower arrest rates of mentally ill people, little empirical validation has been made on how effective CIT can be. He and his wife Lois James ’11 PhD, a criminologist with WSU’s nursing college, used concept mapping focus groups to measure the totality of police encounters.

After winnowing down important factors with the help of law enforcement and mental health professionals, the couple sent a survey to hundreds of law enforcement and mental health professionals across the country. They could then prioritize key elements for CIT, such as knowing the history of a suspect or the ability to read nonverbal cues of a person in crisis.

“Lois and I conducted that research and handed the results to Frontier Behavioral Health, Matt Layton, and Captain Keith Cummings from SPD. They took the results of our study and turned it into learning objectives for the Enhanced CIT program,” says James, who was aided in the analysis by a background in information technology. He did similar focus groups with minority members of the community.

James points out that measurable outcomes lead to better accountability as well as direct application. “We give law enforcement a tremendous amount of power. They’re the only ones in our society who can legally use force to coerce someone to do what they want, without due process. We give them this power and rightfully hold them accountable, but we should only hold them accountable for what they can control.”

The study led to Enhanced CIT, an intensive 65 hours of training, in addition to their 40 hours of basic CIT, for officers who volunteered. “ECIT is for the people who have the heart for this and want to go into these situations. We want them to have a special expertise, just like we have a SWAT team,” says Layton.

The first group finished ECIT in April, after training at a methadone clinic with Layton, mental health clinics, Sacred Heart Medical Center’s triage unit, and Excelsior Health for mentally ill kids.

Ferguson, Vila’s graduate student and a 16-year veteran of SPD, certified through the ECIT training. He describes one of the approaches with a humorous counter-example. “In the movie Airplane, there’s a lady that was screaming, and everyone kept shaking her and slapping her, telling her to calm down. That is so inherent, when somebody’s upset, you want to grab them and say ‘Calm down.’ Yet it’s the worst thing you can do. Using motivational interviewing makes them feel validated, and voice what’s going on inside them, so they calm down themselves.”

James helped organize a conference held at WSU Spokane last July with the researchers, SPD, Spokane Fire Department, Veteran’s Administration, and mental health organizations to showcase the coordinated efforts to serve people with mental illness. It drew police officers from all over the country and another conference is scheduled for July 2016.

Layton, who took part in the conference with James and Vila, says he has also learned from the experience. “I used to think in teaching I need to tell you what I know. Now I am much more collaborative. I can help officers understand that the bad guy might be acting bad for other reasons.”

Ferguson and other police officers see CIT as a valuable tool in their daily work, helping suicidal individuals and others in distress. He describes another encounter with a woman whose delusions caused her to believe she ruled Spokane and her father was John Lennon. Ferguson spent 15 minutes with her, not agreeing with her but not arguing either. Eventually she calmed down enough to let him get her to help.

“If we could do this whole job without using force on anybody, that would be ideal,” he says. “I just don’t think that’s ever going to happen, but the amount of times we can reduce the use of force and get cooperation from people, not hurting them, makes a safer community.”

Spokane police officers respond to a burglary in this body cam footage. The officers are part of a project evaluating best practices for the use of body cameras. Courtesy Spokane Police Department
Spokane police officers respond to a burglary in this body cam footage. The officers are part of a project evaluating best practices for the use of body cameras. Courtesy Spokane Police Department


Body cams

When officers do have to use force, body cams and other videos show it to the world. But accountability for police is just one way law enforcement and society can use this expanding technology. The footage can help shape officer training.

“We often think the key thing with body cams is to hold the officer accountable,” says Makin, an assistant professor in WSU criminology and criminal justice department and Research Fellow at the Washington State Institute for Criminal Justice who has researched body cams and training. “But in many ways this is a phenomenal training device.”

Makin studies problem-based learning for cadets at police academies, a method to introduce realistic scenarios in training and build confidence in recruits as problem-solvers. Body cam footage would let trainers introduce real-world scenarios that reflect both good and bad ways to handle policing situations.

“Much of what an officer does is invisible policing. It never gets captured,” says Makin. “Body cams are going to be so beneficial. It’s going to give us glimpses into the officer’s world in a way we’ve never been able to obtain.”

Problem-based learning attempts to bring critical thinking skills to new officers, while also conveying the legal, defensive, and administrative knowledge they need to be cops. Makin writes that, while traditional training is adequate, it focuses on making police compliant soldier-bureaucrats. Problem-based learning, with its emphasis on analyzing situations, could help officers become competent practitioners.

Body cam footage potentially could increase competency. A recent example from a training session by Makin shows how it might work.

After an interaction, the officer could see “it wasn’t misconduct by any means. But he goes back to the footage and says ‘You know, I really handled that inappropriately. I was maybe a little bit rude in dealing with these two young men.’ He corrects his own behavior.”

Makin has worked with the Washington state police academy and several other agencies to improve training and help instill better techniques in new police officers. He also acts as a research partner in Idaho on mental health and criminal justice issues.

He says body cams can also give communities a better total view of how police work with minority communities. “Baltimore, Atlanta, and Ferguson, Missouri are going for body cams. These are both large and small agencies, and it can show the antagonistic nature of some encounters when we interact with certain groups. Before it was just from the officer’s perspective or the community’s perspective.”

Makin says even though bystanders with smartphone cameras can capture selectively, body cams that turn on when an officer responds to a call can show full interactions and results, negative and positive.

“We had dash cams but those were just for traffic stops,” says Makin. “Now we see what it means to be an officer. We have so many great officers and we haven’t been able to highlight that.”

Makin has a large study expected to be released this spring exploring the officer perspective and organizational factors contributing to a successful implementation of the device, which could lead to more training opportunities with that footage. However, he says body cams are not without problems.

“If officers know they are in a research study and have body cameras, they change their behavior. We haven’t been able to control for that,” says Makin.

He continues: “We do worry about unintended consequences as witnesses might not be so willing to talk. It takes the police interaction out of an informal to a formal relationship because of the camera.”

The new training

Vila says the work at WSU can lead to more valid, empirically based training, but it’s not always understood by law enforcement.

“There are over 18,000 police agencies in the United States, each with their own standards for police training. They think ‘valid’ means we all agree. They don’t understand validity the way we do, which follows rules of evidence and science. We need to change that mindset,” he says.

The work is beginning to get some traction. James recently spoke to the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) about the CIT studies. He, Lois James, and Vila give about one or two presentations a month throughout North America, including Canada.

Stephen and Lois James are the successors to Vila’s lab. Vila says they are uniquely qualified to continue the work: “People who came up through the WSU criminal justice and criminology program get neuroscience, public health, and physiology. They’re not observers, but participants in the research.”

Vila notes that Lois is doing much of the same investigative work in nursing, and recently was chosen to serve on the research advisory committee of the IACP because of her studies on race bias, sleep, and performance. It’s a high honor for a young academic.

Stephen James says the research work in criminal justice makes sense in WSU Spokane’s health sciences programs. “Criminal justice and public health go hand in hand. As one fails, the other one picks it up.”

The Jameses are also joined by Jacqueline van Wormer ’90, ’92 MA, ’10 PhD, an assistant professor who analyzes the efficacy of community courts versus traditional justice models. Together they hope to place policing and police training within the total response of the community to people with mental illness.

All of the researchers point out that the most important aspect of training for police is how it applies on the street, and measuring whether or not it actually reduces shootings and assaults.

“The big secret is no one has ever measured the impact of deadly force training, the biggest chunk of training an officer gets in the academy,” says Vila. “No one knows if there’s a connection between doing well in training and doing well in the real world.”

Makin agrees that law enforcement officers must feel that training—whether it’s crisis intervention or problem-based learning—can work on the street.

“We send officers to diversity training. But if you think of an area that’s 30 percent Russian, and they’ve gone through this training that only talks about how you interact with a population that’s black or Latino, they say, ‘This doesn’t apply to me.’

“Ultimately, they have to see how it’s effective, how they will become more efficient,” says Makin.

James would like to see new training come to basic law enforcement academies as well as continuing training for veteran officers. “Someone needs to sit down, take a deep breath, and look at all the changes in policing in the past 20 years. Look at everything that’s worked, if we can measure it. Look at the core skills of policing and what society wants out of police now,” he says.

Through crisis intervention techniques, realistic training scenarios based on body cam footage, and scientific analysis of training effectiveness, police officers can become even more competent and successful, especially working with diverse communities and people with mental illness.

It could help change perceptions of police as well. Sometimes, says Vila, “The general public believes what they see on television, police shooting guns out of people’s hands and other magical things that don’t work in the real world. That’s not how policing happens.”

Anecdotal evidence, like Ferguson’s YMCA encounter, are showing the way. In the lab, Layton turns around his laptop and shows a news report from KXLY Spokane, aired on a Saturday during the Enhanced CIT training.

An onlooker’s cellphone video shows police responding to a naked man on a residential street, rolling around and yelling incoherently. The officers didn’t restrain him or draw weapons. Instead they kept him contained as he calmed down until an ambulance arrived. The people watching applauded as the man was loaded onto a gurney and taken to get the medical help he required, and not into the back of a police cruiser to be booked into jail.

On the web

Police Body Camera Pilot Program – Spokane Police Department; reports and recommendations

WSU Spokane – Criminal Justice Program

WSU Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology

Video: WSU Health Sciences Update – Bryan Vila and Steve James
The latest episode of the Health Sciences Update features Criminal Justice researchers Bryan Vila and Steve James talking about their innovative research and an upcoming conference on campus this summer featuring the Spokane Police Department.