'Talking People Into Handcuffs': One Western Town Offers Lessons In Good Policing
Moses Lake is a hard-scrabble, working-class community out in the dry, flat scablands of eastern Washington. Ywhna Bin Wahid is taking me on a tour downtown.
"We have a lot of factories out here," he says. "Mitsubishi's out here. There's a lot of airbag factories."
Wahid's got piercings, dreadlocks, and he's taking drags from a vape pen dangling around his neck. He's lived here in Moses Lake for most of his life.
While the town has a large Latino population, Wahid is one of the few Black people here. So he was pretty nervous when he helped organize a Black Lives Matter protest in Moses Lake last summer following the death of George Floyd. He says there's a pretty conservative, white, racist element in town.
"But it came together nicely," he says. "We just had a nice march. Snacks, we talked, shared stories. I mean, it went really, really well. Which surprised the hell out of me because I get called the N-word around here quite a lot."
Though Wahid and others were protesting police violence and systemic racism across the country, they weren't worried about the local cops.
"Believe me, I'm not a huge fan of the police," he says. "But the police here, I do like them."
That's because in Moses Lake, the police don't feel like bad guys, Wahid says. They feel like neighbors.
"They're very wholesome," he says. "They're very localized. They're very human. They go to our gas stations, they go to our gyms, our stores, you see them on and off duty. So it's really hard to hate them."
Wahid hollers out to his friend Baleigh Sampson who's hanging out near a skatepark. She runs over. Sampson was one of the rally co-organizers and she agrees with Wahid – the cops here are pretty cool.
"It's just that they are part of our community and I think that's a big deal," she says.
It is a big deal. Many cops don't live in the communities they serve. Especially in larger cities. Now, Moses Lake is relatively small. About 20,000 people live here. But it has one of the lowest fatal encounter rates in the country despite having rates of violent crime that are somewhat higher than the national average.
Sampson says the cops here know how to diffuse situations.
"Instead of just pulling your gun and getting immediately defensive, they kind of want to de-escalate, not escalate the situation," she says. "I think that's a big thing. I think a lot of cops could take a page out of their book at just how to handle people."
Over the past seven years, there have been two officer-involved fatalities in Moses Lake and the surrounding area. Both men were armed. One shot a police dog. Compare that to a similar city such as Klamath Falls, Ore., which had twice as many fatalities.
"If you've got uses of force that are not justified, you've got to deal with it," says Kevin Fuhr, the chief of police in Moses Lake.
He’s a compact, middle-aged man with short gray hair and he says his department keeps close tabs on officers that use any force during an arrest. He’s been a cop for about three decades and argues that a good police department begins with hiring the right people and then training the heck out of them.
His officers go through extensive, annual training in everything from de-escalation techniques to recognizing any implicit biases they have. He says they also receive 40 hours of crisis intervention training every year. That's five times more than what's required by the state.
"It's not just giving an officer a gun, a badge, the tools and the equipment and then saying, 'Go arrest the bad guys.' It's giving them the skills to be able to talk to people and to build the relationship," he says. "When you show up and you're talking to somebody who's maybe a little amped up, you don't come in amped up, you come in and you try to calm him down."
He calls it "talking people into handcuffs."
And that appears to work. Last year, the Moses Lake Police Department used force in less than 3% of its arrests. Whenever that number gets too high, Fuhr will track the officers responsible and either work on re-training them or he'll dismiss them. He also has strict policies for when cops can use physical restraint or lethal force during an arrest.
All of these are elements of a good police department in the U.S., according to law enforcement expert Robin Engel.
"What you see are strong policies, strong training, and strong supervision and accountability mechanisms," Engel says.
Engel is research director at the International Association of Chiefs of Police and a criminology professor at the University of Cincinnati. She says you need all these components working together to ensure that a department has low lethal force numbers. But here's the thing. Unlike other countries, law enforcement training in the U.S. is all over the board.
"Agencies vary – literally agency by agency – in terms of not just the quantity of training, but the quality of training," she says.
And this can lead to departments like Moses Lake with low fatality numbers – and others that dwarf the two deaths here. And that's prompted calls nationwide to defund the police, essentially moving money away from law enforcement budgets and into social and mental health care services instead.
Fuhr says he gets where activists are coming from.
"You look at these uses of force where an officer has shown up, because somebody is in mental health crisis, and maybe that person in mental health crisis has a weapon," he says. "And now you've just introduced a law enforcement officer that's carrying a gun that now is worried about somebody coming after them. We shouldn't be going to those."
That's why Fuhr has his officers respond to many of these situations over the phone first.
"Because those are the situations that turn bad," he says. "Somebody opens the door, they've got a knife in their hand, they lunge at the officer, the officer shoots them, we're not even engaging in those, we're making the phone call, and we're staying out."
Fuhr is working on a new protocol that will route such calls to a local mental health group instead of the police.
An FAQ about this series and the data behind it can be found here.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.