LAS VEGAS -- As the car came to a halt, the irate driver jumped out, peppering the officers with expletives as he rushed to the open trunk.
The two Las Vegas Metro cops making the traffic stop yelled for him to stop. One longtime officer, worried that the driver might have grabbed a gun from the trunk, ran toward the man as he continued to scream. The driver scrambled out of reach for a moment before the officer took control of him.
It was just a training exercise, and in a briefing a few minutes later, the veteran officer explained he had rushed the agitated driver because he wanted to put "hands on him ... I was trying to close distance and just grab him."
It was a quick way to gain control for sure, but at what risk?
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In the wake of national outrage over the deaths of citizens by police, departments from Seattle to New York have started to use real-life scenarios to teach officers to balance the need for physical force with tactics favoring what's become known as "de-escalation" -- trying to calm tense situations peacefully.
These questions are especially pressing in Chicago amid one of the worst policing crises in its history. Last November's release of troubling video showing a white officer leaping from a squad car and within seconds fatally shooting black teen Laquan McDonald as he walked away has cast the Police Department's training under a harsh light.
Despite the life-and-death nature of the job, the department doesn't generally require officers to take annual classes at the academy after graduating from recruit training with the exception of firearms qualifications.
With the U.S. Justice Department investigating the Chicago department's practices amid the furor over McDonald's killing, City Hall is scrambling to overhaul its officer training. Required classes on Taser use and crisis intervention have already started, and in coming weeks, Chicago will begin to catch up with many other big-city departments and current national policing standards by launching training specifically geared toward de-escalation.
Officials have pledged it will be an annual requirement for all 12,000 officers, but at this point no new money has been earmarked to ensure that the department can accomplish that ambitious goal.
Chicago is looking to Las Vegas as one model as it finalizes its training plans. The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department launched reforms about four years ago, and de-escalation has emerged as a guiding principle. The idea is now woven throughout its policing approach and emphasized in a revised use-of-force policy that included input from many of the department's most respected officers.
The approach is reinforced with annual training that is based on real-life scenarios and tackles vexing, highly controversial issues such as how to help officers not mistake harmless objects in citizens' hands for guns.
The department evaluates every shooting and serious incident -- even those carried out legally and according to policy -- to try to determine what might have been handled better in retrospect. What is learned from those reviews winds up in training.
"We really had to peel back some layers and take a look at what the organization was doing in terms of training, and we had to be honest with ourselves," said Capt. Matt McCarthy, until recently the head of the Las Vegas department's constitutional policing and oversight office. "We weren't hitting the mark. It required us really to look at how we train our officers for today's policing."
That officer who rushed at the driver, while considered an "old school" approach, wasn't necessarily wrong, but he had other options that might have been safer.
"The things we have to think about is ... proximity," said Nicole Hemsey, the training officer who conducted the exercise. "Can I get to him before he can get that gun?"
The officers, she said, could have opted to "stay behind your car doors and come up with a plan, talk to each other before you decide to go up. ... That is where de-escalation comes in."
De-escalation is not a new concept, but over the years, aggressive tactics by police have been emphasized more in training. On the street, pressure has grown on officers to resolve problems quickly in order to get to the next call. Besides, backing off -- a central element of de-escalation -- often isn't a natural instinct for a cop.
"Back in the day, it's like, if I took this ground from you, I didn't give it back to you," said Las Vegas Sgt. Brian Briggs, who oversees officer training and was himself shot in the line of duty. " ... We are trying to tell people it's OK, we have more time. We can set up, let's get more people. ... There were too many incidents, too many shootings, too many even uses of force. People were saying we need to come up with a new way of thinking about it."
The Metro Police Department, whose 2,500 officers patrol both Las Vegas and parts of Clark County, began exploring these questions after 25 officer-involved shootings took place in 2010, the most in 20 years.
Facing mounting criticism from the public as well as the American Civil Liberties Union, the department became the first in the nation to go to the Justice Department for help. An exhaustive review led to more than 70 recommended changes.
Las Vegas revised its policy on officers' use of force, adding a commitment to preserving the "sanctity of life" when at all possible and clarifying when deadly force is warranted.
Generally, police across the country have long relied on a U.S. Supreme Court decision that justifies deadly force if an "objectively reasonable" officer facing similar circumstances would have made the same choice. In the 1989 decision, the court identified three factors to weigh: the severity of the crime committed by the suspect, whether he posed a physical danger to the officer or the public and if he actively resisted.
To further clarify when officers can use force, Las Vegas added five elements to consider, including whether the suspect appears to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol, if he is armed and how close police backup might be. When force is used, officers are expected to address as many of the eight factors in explaining their actions in written reports.
Before the changes took effect for the rank-and-file, the department sought input from about 25 of its most respected officers. Those same officers then were asked to explain the revisions to their colleagues at the eight urban area commands, the Las Vegas version of Chicago's 22 police districts.
"We couldn't sell it without having well-respected officers sell it for us," McCarthy said. "This group we had, they were very hard on the policy. But they understood where we were trying to go."
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, a group of mostly midcareer Las Vegas Metro detectives gathered around a U-shaped table in a classroom at the Mojave Training Center for one of two annual rounds of training using real-life scenarios. Some officers' legs bounced as they waited to start what's called Reality-Based Training, a team-oriented class that was created as part of the reform efforts to help prepare officers for deadly force encounters.
Some of the real-life scenarios are taken from the department's critical incident review process that examines whether policy had been followed as well as the decision-making that led to the use of force. Officers who fail to follow department rules can face discipline ranging up to firing or simply be ordered to undergo further training. Officers found to have performed exceptionally are recognized with a commendation.
This year, the training has been focused on the proper way to clear buildings in an emergency. But first the group must review the department's policy on use of force and the definition of de-escalation.
Three questions pop up on the slide projector: Is there an immediate threat? Who is creating that -- the officer or suspect? Can you take a little time and get more help?
Now it's time for the group to head in for the training exercise. Bright strobes flash and a high-pitched burglary alarm rings as officers make their way furtively through several dark rooms and down a long hallway. Amid the chaos, the officers move quickly in groups of three in search of an armed suspect. In the last room, they find him atop a toilet in a bathroom stall.
He suddenly screams out as the officers, sweat beading on their foreheads as they breathe heavily, attempt to take control. The officers will be judged on how well they use strong verbal commands, keep control of the confined space and avoid using force while taking the suspect into custody.
"We put these dynamics together so that we don't have startle responses" on the street, Lt. Dennis O'Brien whispered inside the darkened room as the next team of officers prepared to go through. "You put them through all the things that are going to stress them out. The point of de-escalation is stopping the momentum. Pull back. Think it through. Solve the problem."
Nearly all of the department's 2,500 officers underwent this training as well as advanced officer skills -- a nearly 20-year-old curriculum that has evolved in the wake of reforms to also emphasize de-escalation.
In one drill in which officers face an ambush by a shooter, instructors tested the participants' heart rates before and after the exercise to illustrate the physiological effects of such stress -- including altered hearing and a narrowing of their vision.
Trainers stressed that officers who stay in shape with cardio workouts are better able to keep their heart rates in check under those trying situations.
Such extensive mandatory training for officers every year would represent a big culture change in Chicago as well as a challenge for a 12,000-strong department confronting escalating gang violence.
The department's Education and Training Division has historically focused on training recruits, offering fewer options to veteran officers except in special cases or promotional classes. All officers, for instance, were required to train for the 2012 NATO summit, and more recently, then-Superintendent Garry McCarthy, who was fired in the wake of the McDonald scandal, instituted a "procedural justice" curriculum that teaches officers how to improve communication and build trust with residents.
The department has also offered refresher tactical courses to officers.
Lt. Steve Sesso, who heads up recruit training, said the department relies heavily on online and video training at district stations, but he agreed that in-person training is preferred -- and that officers want to keep on top of the latest techniques.
"It's absolutely a better option, and we get complaints that they can't come in," he said. "The want is out there."
James Pasco, national head of the Fraternal Order of Police, agreed that officers across the country want the continuing training, but he said budgetary, logistical and political issues keep most police departments from committing to ongoing, mandatory training.
"It's a failure in terms of elected officials or the (police) executives not asking for the funds," Pasco said. " ... We are not talking about on-time trash collection here. We are talking about human lives, and if the mayor can't find enough money to keep people alive and healthy in his or her city, the mayor ought to be run out on a rail."
But it's an expensive proposition at a time of belt-tightening. The New York Police Department spent $17 million so that 22,000 of its officers could each undergo three days of de-escalation training last year, a department spokeswoman said. It took several months for the training to be completed.
In coming weeks in Chicago, officers will each undergo two days of instruction -- one on how to respond to those struggling with mental issues and the other on de-escalation techniques.
With 12,000 officers to teach, the training academy is gearing up to provide round-the-clock classes seven days a week.
The training will be based on actual incidents, Sesso said. Officials are also seeking input from mental health experts and have sent a group of trainers to Las Vegas to learn from their training techniques.
While officer-involved shootings have already been declining in Chicago since 2011, experts caution that de-escalation training isn't just about preventing deadly confrontations but also making sure that officers consider other options than using force too quickly. They stressed, however, that officers need repeated training.
"One year is not enough," said Alexa James, executive director of the Chicago-based National Alliance on Mental Illness who is on the city's task force examining police reform. "There has to be continued refresher courses."
Four years into its reform effort in Las Vegas, officials are hopeful that de-escalation training is paying off.
While some survivors of those killed by police remain skeptical that officers have really changed their mindset, department officials point to a drop in officer shootings -- a combined 32 over the last two years, 19 fatal. Last year, in all but one of the 16 shootings, those targeted by police were armed with a weapon, according to police. In 2010, when the officer shootings peaked at 25, police shot six unarmed individuals.
That improvement means officers are making better decisions under stress, Capt. McCarthy said.
The Justice Department's final report on reforms in Las Vegas, issued in 2014, noted that an independent assessor had concluded that training and oversight contributed to the overall decline in police shootings. But it also pointed out that of the four unarmed suspects shot by police in 2012 and 2013, three were black, perhaps underscoring the need to train officers to try to avoid bias. Indeed, that training is now underway in the department.
The push for de-escalation has led to some worry that officers will hesitate too much, putting themselves at risk. To address that, training instructors set aside time to remind officers not to hold back in dangerous situations because of the increased scrutiny and heightened public awareness.
Officers on the street feel the tension.
"You don't want to learn by being shot or stabbed," Sgt. Miguel Garcia, a 15-year veteran of the department, said on a recent patrol in Las Vegas.
Still, Garcia, who saw the impact of overly aggressive cops while growing up in Los Angeles, said he welcomes this new era in policing, saying it reduces conflicts with residents and stands to keep everyone safer.
"It's different police work. There's more talking to people," he said. "Now we're teaching to have patience, step back ... which is good. Good for the (police), good for the community."