Bath Police Officer Kevin Santora calmly speaks to Chelsey Kaiser of Bowdoin, a volunteer roleplaying as someone threatening suicide. Kathleen O’Brien / The Times Record

Bath Police Officer Kevin Santora knocked on a door at the former Morse High School and announced himself in a calm, clear voice before stepping inside, where a woman sat behind a heavy wooden desk with a plastic knife to her neck.

“Go away,” she said in a shaky voice, “I want to kill myself,” the woman said. “I’m transitioning and nobody understands me.”

Santora holstered his gun and showed her his empty hands. “I’m going to put this in my pocket and I’m not going to touch it again,” he said. “Will you come with me so we can find you some help? Someone who understands?”

The woman lowered her shoulders before nodding her head, signaling observers in the room to exhale for perhaps the first time since the interaction began.

Santora and other members of law enforcement in Sagadahoc County — with the help of volunteers like Chelsey Kaiser of Bowdoinham —  trained this week in use-of-force tactics. However, they also trained in de-escalation, a tool experts say could fundamentally change how police interact with the public if it becomes more of a focus at police academies.

In its call for implementing a national training standard for police officers on Thursday, the Council on Criminal Justice’s Task Force on Policing called for more emphasis on de-escalating conflicts and less emphasis on using force.


“Given its relatively strong evidence of effectiveness, de-escalation should be a central component of police training, afforded equal weight to use-of-force training and fully integrated into all aspects of academy and in-service training curricula,” the council stated. “Traditional police training typically instructs officers to use a continuum of force, increasing it as the level of threat rises.”

Maria Haberfeld, a professor of police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said she believes police academies should devote roughly equal training time to use of force and de-escalation.

“When I started researching police training over 20 years ago, 90% of police academies didn’t devote any time to communication skills,” said Haberfeld. “Sometimes they would devote 15 or 20 minutes. An average police officer uses his or her gun maybe twice or three times during their entire career, but they communicate on a daily basis.”

Haberfeld said more communication training needs to be implemented in police academies nationwide to see a substantial difference in how police officers interact with their communities.

“When you learn use-of-force skills at the police academy, it’s very hard to un-learn them later during in-service training,” said Haberfeld. “Most police academies devote very little time, if any, on communication skills. They’re focused mainly on the physical aspects of force.”

If officers underwent thorough de-escalation and communication training, Haberfeld said the public would notice a difference in how police approach any situation. She said officers would switch from being “authoritarian and threatening” to “still authoritarian, but respectful.”


Officers undergo 720 hours of basic training at the  Maine Criminal Justice Academy. Of those, 23 hours are dedicated to communication training, such as interviewing techniques and crisis conflict management.

This year, the academy added a mandatory two-hour continuing education course dedicated to de-escalation training for law enforcement.

Maine Criminal Justice Academy Director Rick Desjardins said communication training is intertwined in all academy training.

De-escalation Desjardins said, “is at the core of what we do when we’re interacting with people, is to try to resolve problems, with the least restrictive means possible.”

Desjardins said 64 hours of the state police academy training are dedicated to training in the “mechanics of arrest, restraint and control.” During the training, he said officers are “working on various handcuffing techniques and defensive moves to help prevent an officer from being killed because they are in some potentially deadly altercations.”

Some of the scenario-based training officers undergo, in which actors are brought in and officers must assess a staged call, can be defused and solved through de-escalation tactics. Other times, an officer must use physical force to gain control of an uncompliant person.


“The scenario is designed to make sure the officers can appropriately use force that is needed to effect an arrest or protect themselves from an injury or an assault,” said Desjardins. “The person is going to ultimately get to a point where they’re going to be compliant and a failure in that particular training would be if the officer doesn’t recognize when that compliance happens. They have to then reciprocate by essentially backing off their force levels, becoming calm, talking the person down, and going back into that de-escalation pattern.”

Desjardins said officers need to “demonstrate an ability to recognize when the fight is over” in addition to successfully protecting themselves against a physical attack in training scenarios in order to pass the test.

“Use of force” is an umbrella term to describe anything an officer does to gain compliance, ranging from giving verbal commands to using physical force to make an arrest.

Haberfeld said officers are trained in the “continuum of force” which begins with verbal communication and escalates to using deadly force if someone is threatening deadly force on them or others.

“When police officers are trained on the continuum of force, they’re also told they don’t have to follow all the steps on the continuum of force based on their discretion,” said Haberfeld. “Sometimes, trying to talk to an active shooter is not the right response, so they can immediately proceed to deadly force.”

Conversely, officers can de-escalate a situation by using verbal communication to convince someone to be compliant.


The training in Bath this week involved officers entering staged scenarios without advance notice of what’s going to happen, requiring them to think on their feet and make the right choices in the moment, said Bath Deputy Police Chief Andrew Booth. These scenarios ranged from needing to help an injured officer to responding to someone threatening suicide.

Officer Al Huntington from the Sagadahoc Sheriff’s Office ties a tourniquet around Bath School Resource Officer Chuck Reece’s leg during training exercises Wednesday.

Booth said the Bath department “trains our officers to use the least amount of force possible to make an arrest,” falling in line with themes of de-escalation in policing.

“If you’re patient, you can de-escalate almost any situation,” said Booth. “It’s better for everyone if we can talk to someone, calm them down, and work out a compromise.”

Hannah Longley, director of community programs at the National Alliance on Mental Illness Maine, said de-escalation and communication can be especially useful when police help someone undergoing a mental health crisis.

To help police respond to those calls, the alliance created the Crisis Intervention Team program. The program builds a network of law enforcement, mental health providers, and community members to direct people undergoing a mental health crisis to specialized care and away from the criminal justice system.

“I think the stigma that still surrounds mental health is that it is a criminal issue,” said Longley. “Someone with a severe and persistent mental illness is 11 times more likely to be the victim of a crime than they are to perpetrate a crime than the general population. The violent crime rate, if we eliminated all mental health aspects from the crimes, would only be reduced by 3-4%.”

Longley said the program is also meant to improve safety during law enforcement encounters with people experiencing a mental health crisis.

“Over the last year, law enforcement, depending on the department, has seen between a 30-50% increase in the call volume of mental health calls that they’re responding to,” said Longley. “What the research really tells us is implementing (the Crisis Intervention Team program) as a community-based program, not just the training response, there is a decrease in the use of force and the injuries that occur (during encounters with police).”

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