Last August the Seattle police received a call from security at a local REI retail store. The caller reported that a man had just stolen an ice ax and physically threatened a female employee with the deadly weapon. Responding officers found the man, later identified as James Smith, walking down a sidewalk. The ax was clearly in hand. An officer advised dispatch, “He’s swinging an ice ax around.”
The officers did their best not to intensify the situation. They kept their distance (the best defense against an edged weapon), following the man and attempting to get him to peacefully surrender. “Drop it, drop it, drop it. Come on just drop it on the ground.”
Such orders, requests, and pleas were ignored. For close to five minutes the officers followed Smith over a distance of several blocks.
“He’s been looking back at me, and he’s holding it up like he’s going to swing it at me,” said one of the officers on the scene. It’s clear upon viewing the body-cam footage that the thief refuses to stop or follow commands and is obviously deadly dangerous.
Several times Smith raised the ax in a threatening manner. But no one besides the officers were in the immediate vicinity, so they cautiously waited to act.
Smith finally walked into a narrow corridor near a building under construction. The man looked at the officers, raised the ax again, and then turned away from them. In that instant, Officer Nick Guzley saw his chance. He rushed forward, grabbed the suspect in a bear-hug, and forced him to drop the stolen weapon.
No one was hurt and the thief was placed in custody. Exceptional street police work and intuitive thinking—something that can’t be taught in the academy, by the way.
James Smith wasn’t struck with batons. He wasn’t Tased. He wasn’t shot. An officer made a split-second decision and risked his own life in order to control the man without injuring him. Exactly what the public wants: violent subjects subdued without injury and police officers taking their time and delaying deadly force as long as possible.
The Officer’s Reward
Officer Nick Guzley, anyone would expect, should receive some type of award for his controlled response and bravery. Something positive in his file. Something to hang on his wall.
Instead, Nick has been charged for a “failure to de-escalate” by the Seattle Office of Police Accountability (OPA). The official recommendation is for Guzley to receive a two-day suspension without pay.
Kevin Stuckey, president of the Seattle Police Officers Guild, said his organization supports their officer. “At some point, if we don’t act, someone’s going to get hurt,” Stuckey said.
“I thought it was a commendable act,” he added. “The alternative is to continue to let him keep walking, until he walks into somebody while he’s clearly having a mental break, and he hits them in the head. And then what? Then the question would be, ‘Why didn’t you act sooner?’”
While Officer Guzley remains on patrol he anxiously awaits his fate, which ultimately rests in the hands of Chief Carmen Best. According to media reports, most of the Seattle PD management supports Guzley and the chief is expected to overrule the OPA.
The Conundrum of Deescalation
How did the OPA get involved in the first place?
According to several media outlets, one of Guzley’s own supervisors filed the complaint with the oversight organization. Five minutes, several blocks of nonthreatening language that involved orders and pleading to a man who was a clear danger to all—this wasn’t enough for Guzley’s boss.
Apparently Guzley should have done more to deescalate. But what? Taken more time? Said different things? Used a different tone? Waited for a different moment?
We at Calibre Press teach a very successful course that addresses deescalation in a realistic manner that is simple and straightforward, and it works on the street. But as we say in the course, not everyone can be calmed. Deescalation is not a specific tactic that works every time. And it’s not appropriate in every situation.
The problem with establishing an actual policy that demands deescalation be part of any force encounter is that if the suspect won’t deescalate, there seems to be the presumption that it was somehow the fault of the officer. He or she didn’t do all possible to calm the suspect before applying force. And with the 20/20 vision of hindsight anyone can second guess and critique.
This is, of course, nonsense. Everybody and every situation is different. There is no magic phrase, no perfect set of words that will always deescalate the angry and agitated. Sometimes public safety requires that our officers get physical.
Management & Trust
I’ve written multiple articles about the absolute need for bosses to be sharp, aware, and able to perform the job on the street themselves. How else can they coach, counsel, discipline and train effectively if they can’t do the basics? They need to have the skillset necessary to understand and analyze the totality of events and not just be Monday-morning quarterbacks. If all they do is critique, they aren’t leaders and there will be no trust.
Officer Guzley—and he alone—was in that exact position at that exact moment. Only he knows just what he saw and thought. He decided. He acted. He saved lives while risking his own. Everything the anti-police movement is screaming for …
His reward? Criticism, condemnation, discipline from his own boss. A recommendation for money to be taken out of his pocket. A stain on his record.
What does it say to every other officer on the Seattle police department? What does it tell officers to do next time? What does it do to the communal spirit of the organization?
Office of Police Accountability
I recently wrote an article about the obvious anti-police bias in too many of the citizen review boards across the country. Few have established standards or qualifications that must be met in order to be selected. Many are stocked with those vocally opposed to police and who seem to believe that pervasive institutional problems are the cause of misdeeds in law enforcement. Few seem to have any idea what it’s like to wear the uniform and deal with the insanity of the street.
The Seattle OPA looks as though they have selected educated people with good intentions. But a master’s, PhD., and law degree won’t help you to deal with an agitated person armed with a stolen ax. If they want to help, really make a difference, they must get to know the men and women of the Seattle police department. Ride 200 hours. Go on domestics. Go through 100 hours of range and shoot/don’t-shoot scenarios. Hit someone with a baton. Try to deescalate a schizophrenic carrying a hatchet.
Now sit in judgement.
Until then, if this is the new standard for misconduct, you might be asking the impossible. And the sad result should be obvious.