Crisis cadets: Sacramento sheriff’s academy requires trainees to pass expanded deescalation course

Aspiring cops expected to use words to calm volatile confrontations

Hoping to head off the next lethal-force controversy, Sacramento County sheriff’s cadets are now getting expanded training in how to defuse crises.

The county board of supervisors approved the sheriff’s department’s request to fund two-and-a-half years of crisis intervention training, a program begun in February 2014, said sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Tony Turnbull. But a new component now requires completion of a 24-hour course as a requisite for graduation from the sheriff’s training academy, rather than the eight hours previously demanded. The first class to complete this requirement will graduate in April.

The $31,540 retroactive agreement went into effect January 1 and extends through April 30, 2019. The training, offered regionally to all local law enforcement agencies, includes 24 eight-hour awareness courses—covering crisis intervention techniques and verbal deescalation skills—and five 24-hour comprehensive courses, according to the supervisors’ agenda report.

Though participation in the overall program has been voluntary, Turnbull said in an email that the sheriff’s department has required all deputies and sergeants to attend the eight-hour course, and that at least two personnel on each shift undergo expanded course training. Beyond those mandated guidelines, deputies are offered the extended course at their own discretion and based on staffing availability.

An uptick in service calls involving subjects who may have mental-health issues factored into the expanded academy requirement, Turnbull said.

The crisis intervention training program was conceived in 2013, the year before it was launched, when the county sheriff’s and health and human services departments, as well as police agencies in Citrus Heights, Elk Grove, Folsom and Galt, identified the need for the training in a countywide assessment, the agenda report states.

Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies are still struggling to reduce the number of confrontations with mentally ill individuals that turn violent. Six of the 14 officer-involved shootings in Sacramento County the last two years involved individuals in psychological crisis, according to reviews by the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office. These include the controversial shooting deaths last year of Joseph Mann and Dazion Flenaugh by Sacramento city police officers.

The police department sent representatives to a two-day course on defusing critical incidents back in December.

Local agencies are hoping continued training will eventually decrease the number of volatile situations ending in violence. Officers achieved two peaceful resolutions on February 15, when Sacramento police and fire personnel rescued a man who jumped into the Sacramento River and became stranded on a log. Described as “possibly armed with a knife” in an online police summary, the rescued man was transported for a medical evaluation.

That same day, officers struggled with an erratic subject armed with a large knife, but the incident ended without serious injury or death. The man was safely taken into custody and arrested on parole violation and weapons charges.

Whether additional training will make these encounters the norm is inherently difficult to measure, noted Rick Braziel, the county’s inspector general. “In real life you never truly know what your training prevented,” he said.

Braziel, a former Sacramento police chief who now monitors complaints against the sheriff’s department, added that “it’s very hard to measure success.”

Braziel contended the best way to ensure that crisis training results in fewer deaths in the field is to treat it as an ongoing program, rather than as a one-off. “With Sac County, you’re talking about over 1,000 deputies and in the region … another 1,500 to 2,000 officers,” Braziel said. “It’s just a lot of people to get through training, and if we do it right, we’re not just doing it one time—we’re doing updates on a regular basis.”