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Our View: AG’s police training redesign makes good sense

Focus on officers’ mental health, new competencies mean effective policing

Social emotional awareness, competency and wellness aren’t things a state’s top lawyer commonly promotes. But this is exactly what Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser is doing for his part in the redesign of law enforcement training to eliminate needless escalation in interactions with members of the public.

We appreciate Weiser’s attention to these competencies – they develop moral courage. Especially helpful in moments when officers make split-second choices in situations with irreversible consequences.

Weiser’s ah-ha moment came in summer 2017 when visiting Alamosa Sheriff Robert Jackson, who said 90% of people in his jail were struggling with opioid addiction. Weiser then realized law enforcement needed some new tools. The connections among criminal justice, education and health care needs all became crystal clear – they had to be trauma-informed. And addiction stigmas did no good.

This epiphany set Weiser on a journey to prepare officers for better community policing with new sensitivities, new disciplines.

“If you don’t recognize what’s causing the struggle, you will undermine effective policing,” he said.

Broad skills come from three foundational courses: Integrating Communications, Assessment and Tactics or ICAT, a scientifically validated de-escalation system; Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement or ABLE, to intervene productively with other officers; and Ethical Decision Making Under Stress or EDMUS, to help officers make better choices in high-stress environments.

Especially timely is ABLE after the horrific assault and killing of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tennessee, in January. ABLE empowers officers to take action immediately in the face of potential misconduct or unnecessary use of force by fellow officers. They can lean into training models (the three Ds – distract, delegate, direct), and have the language and experience of practice to respectfully interrupt other officers to change the trajectory of a circumstance going wrong.

It’s just one more area of training an officer can lean into and rely on. Officers also learn how to recognize and manage their own trauma, which can heighten in bad times and influence actions.

These competencies support peace officers’ mental wellness and have potential to build public trust in law enforcement. Beyond being cops, they’re training to become more evolved humans in moments that require expertise and finesse. Like dousing a fire with water, empathy and compassion guide officers when they respond.

Weiser is chairman of the Peace Officer Standards and Training Board. Together, his office and the Denver Police Department brought ABLE to state law enforcement agencies. Through POST, Weiser knows Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin and La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith. Both Nowlin and Smith are “exemplars of this mindset” of mental health in law enforcement. Good news for all of us.

Sadly, social emotional learning has become politicized, particularly in Florida. Gov. Ron DeSantis flagged and censored elementary school math books with cartoon children pop-ups alongside equations that nudge students toward critical thinking and reasoning. An explanation for one of the textbooks rejected is because of this line: “To learn together, disagree respectfully.”

Whether it’s second-graders or police on the street, we sure hope peers can “disagree respectfully.”

Another example from a math book under a section “Learn Together,” includes, “Share your ideas: Say what you think to help you and others learn; Value ideas from others: There are many ways of thinking; Listen with an open mind: Be ready to think about what others have to say.”

No, we’re not going off into the (marshy) weeds; it’s the same principle. Social emotional learning offers valuable skills for all of us.

We connected with Weiser while he was here for stops in Durango and Cortez. On Wednesday, he swung by The Hub, an alternative school and therapeutic educational model for at-risk students in the Durango School District.

“This is absolutely at the cutting edge of what we need to be doing,” Weiser said about The Hub.

Weiser and his team are going good work, investing in the culture of law enforcement to value mental health and wellness, for officers as well as citizens they serve. Because it also comes down to how we react – or respond – in a single moment.

In a speech to Law Enforcement Academy Graduation at Colorado Mountain College in May, Weiser spoke about “the true north of the profession­ – doing the right thing, the right way, for the right reason.” Social emotional skills training will move officers closer to making their best decisions.