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A Maryland police chief on how de-escalation tactics can save lives

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

So often in recent years, you've heard about police encounters with civilians that have gone very wrong. Now we want to tell you about one that didn't, and it might offer clues about how the increasingly toxic relationship between police and civilians might be different. Last Sunday in Hyattsville, Md., which is just outside Washington, D.C., a mother called the local police department to let them know that her 15-year-old son had a loaded AR-15-style rifle in his room. After clearing the home, the police were able to remove the rifle while the boy slept. Police Chief Jarod Towers credited the mom with trusting his department. He said the trust helped them defuse a potentially deadly situation without firing a shot. But it also seems that the officers' training played a role here. We wanted to talk about that. So we've called Chief Towers, and he's with us now. Chief, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

JAROD TOWERS: Absolutely. I'm happy to be here.

MARTIN: Chief, can you just tell us a little bit about what happened last Sunday? Like, when did the call come in, and what did the boy's mother say to dispatchers? And how did you hear about it?

TOWERS: So late Sunday evening, when the mother went into the room and noticed that the 15-year-old was sleeping with the rifle, she immediately called our communication center. And she seemed to be in a state of fear. She told our dispatchers that she was scared, and she was hiding in the residence, waiting for officers to arrive. I learned about it probably, you know, within a few minutes based on our command notification system and our protocol internally.

Our officers that arrived on scene went into the house. They removed the mother and occupants of the house, made sure that the house was safe and that no one else was in danger. They went in tactfully and, you know, relied on their training and went into the room, knowing that they could potentially escalate the situation and cause a situation where they or the 15-year-old could be put in harm's way. And they went in tactfully and thoughtfully, using what we consider to be time and distance, which is slowing things down, going into the situation slowly and thoughtfully to make sure that we remove the danger and protect everybody involved, including, you know, the person that's armed with the weapon.

MARTIN: Was this boy known to have had weapons before?

TOWERS: Yes, he has been.

MARTIN: One of the things you said earlier is that trust played a role in being able to handle this situation successfully, but also training played a role. And I want to take those two separately. Why do you think the mother trusted you?

TOWERS: We've been out to the house before. At least a half a dozen different officers have been there at that particular residence and have had interaction with the mother. I mean, what I can tell you is that we know that she relied upon us. You know, as a person outside of my position as chief of police, I would hesitate to call the police on my own child with a weapon because you never know what's going to happen. I know that this woman did not do that because she trusted us to get involved in the situation. And Hyattsville Police Department has a longstanding relationship with our community because of the hard work of the men and women of our department and their devotion and our former chiefs.

MARTIN: Tell me a little bit more about the training that you say went into this.

TOWERS: Integrated communications and tactics - it's really about what I mentioned earlier, about time and distance, about slowing things down and getting officers to understand that we don't have to rush into every situation and that every situation, while it is an emergency - but we don't allow the situation before us to make us give up our training and give up the thought process. We stop, we slow down and we think about what's before us. And we create time and distance to make sure that we have a safe environment for the officers to approach the situation thoughtfully and by stopping at the door of the residence, not just running inside and barging into the bedroom and potentially waking this juvenile up. And next thing you know, we have somebody with a weapon in their hands instead of a weapon next to them in the bed. You know, we enter the house slowly. We talk to the people on scene. We talk to the mother. We find out if there's anyone else inside. We ask them all to step outside. And then we develop a plan, and we move in slowly. And that's what our officers did.

MARTIN: I wonder, how big is your department?

TOWERS: We are allocated 50 sworn positions.

MARTIN: And so that's a relatively small department. It's not as small as some. I do wonder whether....

TOWERS: Correct.

MARTIN: ...You feel that the techniques that you have been using here could be employed by larger departments. Do you think that places that perhaps see themselves differently than you do could be...

TOWERS: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...Would benefit from some of your work?

TOWERS: Absolutely. It is something that takes time because organizations have to - they have to change their culture. It's not necessarily classroom training. While some of it is done in a classroom atmosphere, it's really about people. And organizations have to ensure that everyone understands the importance of doing what they signed up to do, which is serving, right? We all signed up for that, but sometimes we lose sight of it. Officers become so ingrained in speaking from a position of authority when they're in a uniform that they forget how to interact and communicate on just a human level. And they become so used to that that they forget how to just say, hey, how are you doing today? Although the public sees us as a - as government or someone in a position of authority, we're all just people. And when you can get the officers to see themselves that way and remove that expectation, you can really get them to connect.

MARTIN: You know, unfortunately, this year - we just had this terrible shooting in Uvalde, Texas. And the criticism of the police there was that they didn't intervene soon enough. Obviously, that's a very unique set of circumstances, but it's not as unique as we wish it were, right? And I do wonder whether...

TOWERS: Right.

MARTIN: ...A situation like that causes you to - or any of your officers, frankly - to kind of question the way you are encouraging them or instructing them to handle situations like the one we just talked about.

TOWERS: No, it is something that you have to consider as a police leader. But if your officers know that while you have an expectation that they see people for people and that they remember why they signed up for service, but at the same time support them in a way that they know that you're going to support their decisions when they have good intentions and they rely on their training, you can ensure that your officers are confident enough to engage when they need to engage. And that's the tricky thing about law enforcement. It's a profession that's different than any other in that you have to be able to connect in human interactions, but you also have to be able to know when you need to intervene and maybe take a life in order to protect another.

MARTIN: That is Chief Jarod Towers. He's the chief of the Hyattsville, Md., police department. Chief, thanks so much for talking with us. I do hope we'll talk again.

TOWERS: Absolutely. Thank you very much for your time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.