Former Trainer: Philadelphia Police Compromised De-escalation Training Despite Warnings

Taser X26 Model. Photo by Jason Bain, licensed under Creative Commons. Original here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/88414990@N00/295015196.

Taser X26 Model. Photo by Jason Bain, licensed under Creative Commons.

 

By Austin Nolen

Last spring, when the federal Office of Community Oriented Policing Services released their long-awaited assessment of the use of force by Philadelphia Police, there was a great deal of praise for the Department’s decision to submit to the review.

Overlooked in the fanfare, however, was the assessment’s criticism of the way the Department trained its officers in de-escalation tactics and the use of Tasers.

The untold story behind this flawed training program reveals how PPD overlooked a serious problem despite internal dissent, a decision that may have had deadly consequences.

 

Carmelo Santiago with a photo of his son Carmelo Winans, shot by Philadelphia police on March 13th, 2011. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Carmelo Santiago with a photo of his son Carmelo Winans, shot by Philadelphia police on March 13th, 2011. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

 

CARMELO Santiago’s weekend started on a positive note. He spent the early afternoon of Friday, March 11th, 2011 dropping his son off at a drug treatment program, according to his deposition taken in a later civil suit.

His son, Carmelo Winans, had dropped out of high school and been in trouble with the law, but was now voluntarily entering drug treatment. Winans had been staying with his father since January, when he was released from jail after prosecutors dropped an assault charge.

By Sunday, March 13th, Santiago had not heard from his son in two days and was beginning to worry. Then he received a phone call. It was his son, and “he was telling me, Dad, come pick me up. I’m being followed,” Santiago later testified.

Matters only escalated once the two arrived at Santiago’s house in South Kensington. Once Winans entered the house, “he went to the kitchen, he sat on the corner… There’s a drawer with knives, spoons, forks, so what he did was he was reaching like this and, you know, until he grabbed a knife,” Santiago said.

When Winans began pressing the knife to his throat, Santiago decided to call the police.

 

OFFICERS  Matthew McCarthy and Richard Nicoletti had just exited afternoon roll call in the 26th Police District when they were notified of Santiago’s call. When the two entered the Santiago house, Winans was “rambling” and “telling us he wants crack. I need crack… he was acting as if he was on PCP,” Nicoletti said later in a deposition.

The two officers failed to convince Winans to drop the knife. As a result, “I just called any officer” with crisis intervention training, McCarthy testified. “I called for a Taser-trained officer… I just believed that a Taser-trained officer was necessary in this situation,” he said.

Nicoletti also equated crisis training with Tasers, testifying that “neither of us had a Taser, so we went on radio to ask for a car with a Taser.”

Another officer, Jill Kerstetter, who was crisis-trained, was already en route and entered the Santiago house within minutes. Just as Kerstetter entered, however, Winans “looked over at her and he grabbed the knife… got his grip again on the knife and made a cutting motion towards his throat,” according to Nicoletti.

At this point, Nicoletti jumped on Winans, with his gun in his hand, to try to pry the knife away. During the struggle, Nicoletti shot Winans through the hand, but believing that Winans had grabbed his gun, called out either that Winans had the firearm or that he had just been shot. McCarthy then shot Winans twice, killing him.

In subsequent legal proceedings against Nicoletti, however, even the city attorneys assigned to defend him dismissed the claim that Winans was cutting into his own throat. In two separate motions, assistant city solicitor Amanda Shoffel wrote that “At some point, Carmelo began to put the knife down and Officer Nicoletti lunged towards him.”

The plaintiff’s attorney argued that Nicoletti “senselessly created a crisis by throwing himself on the seated Carmelo Winans and he did so with his own gun in his hand.” Multiple lawsuits over the shooting were eventually settled for more than 400,000 dollars.

Why did Nicoletti jump a mentally ill man who presented no threat, especially after an officer with crisis training arrived on scene? And why did both Nicoletti and McCarthy call a crisis-trained officer but focus on her ability to provide a Taser? To answer both questions, we have to start the story about fifteen years ago.

 

ON July 19th, 2000, Robert Brown, a 45-year-old schizophrenic man, confronted Amtrak Police officers inside of 30th Street Station with a metal chair and dared them to shoot. Officer Dennis Kelly did just that, shooting Brown in the stomach and killing him.

Brown’s death proved to be a catalyst for the efforts of local activists who had already been pressuring the Philadelphia Police Department to train their officers to handle the mentally ill without unnecessary escalation and violence.

After Brown’s death, then-Police Commissioner John Timoney “asked to review the whole policy” on handling mentally ill subjects, according to deposition testimony from Police Captain Fran Healy, published here for the first time by the Declaration.

As a result of the review, the department “collaborated with the Family Training and Advocacy Center… to develop a training curriculum for supervisors” on handling mental illness,” Healy testified.

By 2005, this same training, called Enhancing Safety, was being opened to interested rank-and-file police officers after receiving positive reviews from supervisors. In his deposition, Healy testified that the program, which “was developed with John [MacAlarney] through the FTAC program” and emphasized de-escalation, was “very good training.”

 

AT the same time the department was implementing new training for handling mental illness, it was resisting a call by advocates like Sister Mary Scullion, the founder of Project HOME, to start a more intensive training program for select officers.

That intensive training program, known as Crisis Intervention Training, is based on a policy first developed by the Memphis Police Department. Instead of the six hour rank-and-file training under Enhancing Safety, CIT called for a week-long training program for volunteer officers interested in being crisis experts for their department.

Officers from the Memphis Police Department had even presented the CIT program to Philadelphia officers in 1999 at the request of mental health advocates, but received mostly skepticism from police brass. In 2005, Police Inspector Jim Tiano told the Philadelphia Inquirer that the department didn’t plan to adopt CIT, because “it creates specialization.”

Internally, higher ups were voicing the same concern. “At the time, Commissioner Timoney had a problem with the volunteer officer concept,” Healy testified, “so we went back and forth for a lot of years.”

Nevertheless, thanks in part to the efforts of advocates like Sister Mary – “I love the woman… But you don’t want to be on her wrong side,” Healy said – the city initiated a pilot of a CIT program called RESPONDS for officers in its East District in 2007.

 

THE start of Enhancing Safety and later CIT coincided with the availability of a radical new weapon to officers, the Taser.

Taser was initially developed by Jack Cover, an aerospace scientist. According to a profile in the Los Angeles Times, Cover began developing the device in the 1960s. TASER is an acronym for “Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle,” based on a favorite science fiction book of Cover’s.

Cover met with little success, however, and in 1993, he sold the design to brothers Tom and Rick Smith, who founded the company that later became Taser International. The company’s 2004 report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission reports that its first successful law enforcement product, the Advanced Taser M26, was launched in 1999 and its revenue increased 177% in 2004 alone compared to the previous year.

Taser’s 2004 report describes the basic way its devices function:

Our devices use compressed nitrogen to shoot two small, electrified probes… After firing, the probes discharged from our cartridges remain connected to the device by high-voltage insulated wires that transmit electrical pulses into the target… The pulses temporarily overwhelm the normal electrical signals… impairing subjects’ ability to control their bodies or perform coordinated actions.

In other words, the Taser temporarily disrupts normal brain functioning using electricity. Tasers can also be used in “drive stun” mode, where the device is applied directly to skin and used to simply shock a subject.

While Tasers aren’t a perfect solution, as the recent death of Omar Lopez demonstrates, policing authorities generally point to their positive role in reducing deadly force incidents. Tasers, also known as electronic control weapons, “have consistently been associated with reductions of both officer and suspect injuries,” according to the COPS Office review of the Philadelphia police.

The Philadelphia police had adopted Tasers at around the same time as the initial training changes, but at the time, had scarce resources to buy them. “Officers didn’t have Tasers. The supervisors weren’t issued Tasers… we didn’t have the money for that.” Instead, supervisors would “sign out a Taser, much like police radio,” Healy said.

 

BY the time the first pilot CIT program had concluded, funds had apparently become more plentiful. The press release announcing the program’s expansion mentioned that “those officers certified in CIT receive training in the use of non-lethal force with the use of a Taser.”

Police Directive 22, which covers less-lethal force, previously restricted Tasers to “Lieutenants and Sergeants … Personnel assigned to SWAT have also been trained in their use.” When Directive 22 was updated in 2010, however, it was changed to read “officers that have successfully completed the Crisis Intervention Training … will be issued an ECW.”

CIT officers weren’t simply equipped with Tasers, however; they were pretty much the only officers allowed to carry the weapons. When the COPS Office report was released, Finding 8 reported that “the PPD requires officers to complete CIT in order to obtain an ECW. This requirement conflates the two tactical approaches.”

As a result of this conflation, “many officers… referred to CIT training as ‘taser training’ because they viewed obtaining the tool as the primary outcome of the training,” rather than the de-escalation mission of CIT, according to the COPS Office report. Other officers, such as Officer McCarthy, reduced their CIT colleagues to “Taser-trained” officers.

The COPS Office even found “instances in which ‘mental illness’ is listed as a reason for using force, often being cited in instances of ECW discharges.”

If the Police Department hadn’t “conflate[d] the two tactical approaches” of CIT and Tasers, in the words of the COPS Office, would Nicoletti have escalated with situation with Carmelo Winans, or would he have allowed Officer Kerstetter to implement her training?

 

WHILE the COPS report does not examine how this decision was made, it was not a matter of a simple oversight. According to John MacAlarney, an attorney and former prosecutor who had helped develop the Department’s mental health trainings, he repeatedly warned Fran Healy that this policy would undermine CIT’s goals.

In August 2012, after MacAlarney learned about the new policy, he “emailed Healy twice because you needed to separate out CIT and Tasers to maintain the integrity of the CIT program,” he told the Declaration in an interview.

“In September,” MacAlarney said, “there was another meeting of a police training committee which Healy attended and I repeated my recommendations then. Captain Healy responded that I might as well stop making that recommendation, because Commissioner Ramsey made the decision and it was not going to change.”

In his 2011 deposition, Healy told opposing counsel that “Commissioner Ramsey only wanted CIT officers to have this piece of equipment, because it is a dangerous piece of equipment,” but the COPS Office report largely sided with MacAlarney’s view of the dangers of conflation. Captain Healy did not respond to a request for comment.

 

DESPITE  the criticism of the policy of linking CIT and Tasers by the COPS Office, it’s not clear that real reform is in the works. Several months ago, the Declaration spoke Captain Jacqueline Bailey-Pittman, the officer in charge of implementing the COPS report.

“There are some intricacies” that the department leadership is “trying to work out with regard to decoupling CIT and Tasers,” Pittman told the Declaration “I don’t think that Commissioner Ramsey is in agreement with a total decoupling.”

Then-Commissioner Ramsey did not respond to a request for comment about his continued opposition. Current Commissioner Richard Ross was not immediately available to comment on his position.

The most recent report of the COPS Office on the progress of the Police Department reforms only states that “a compromise version of decoupling ECW and CIT that would include some de-escalation training to go along with the ECW class” is in the works.

The exact details of this compromise have yet to be announced.

Certain portions of the depositions of Carmelo Santiago and Captain Fran Healy have been redacted to protect personal medical information which is not relevant to this story.

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