Q&A: Howard police education commander talks about mental health incidents

Lt. Bob Wagner is the Commander of Education and Training Division for the Howard County Police Department. Wagner discusses how the county's police force is trained to handle encounters with individuals who may have mental health issues. Wagner also discusses how officers determine when to fire their weapons.

In two separate incidents last month, police officers shot two people in domestic settings after they threatened the officers and others with knives. In both instances, police believe the citizens, who died as a result of the incidents, were dealing with mental health issues.

Q: Do police believe the two incidents are at all related and part of some trend, or is it being looked at as coincidence?

A: There are no indicators that these two incidents are related or part of a trend. We have not seen a dramatic increase or decrease in suicides in recent years. Publicity surrounding an event can sometimes trigger others who are thinking of the same thing to act on those thoughts, although that can't be known for sure.

Q: In a situation where an officer is confronted with a suicidal subject, specifically one with a weapon, what are they trained to do?

A: Officers are trained in de-escalation techniques, using communication and negotiation, when a person is in crisis. They are trained to only use deadly force to stop a threat of serious bodily injury or death to themselves or others. They first try to eliminate the threat of violence without the use of weapons.

Patrol officers often call in specialized negotiators, tactical units and the Mobile Crisis Team, a partnership between the police and Grassroots, to respond and resolve situations.

Many patrol officers, as well as some of our dispatchers and detectives, also have crisis intervention training to teach them additional methods to de-escalate a suicidal subject or person with mental illness. Each situation is different, so there is no one way to de-escalate a situation with someone who is suicidal and has a weapon.

If officers believe a person in crisis is a threat to himself or others, they can take him into custody on an emergency petition to be transported to the hospital for evaluation.

Q: As part of their training, are officers educated on how to handle potential "suicide-by-cop" situations? If so, what are they trained to do.

A: Officers are educated on suicide-by-cop situations and how to recognize them. Sometimes it is clear, but it is often difficult to know a person's intent. If the situation permits, trained negotiators respond. If the situation does not permit — if it is a surprise, or the subject with a weapon takes quick action to threaten the officer or someone else's safety or life, an officer must react with appropriate force to stop the threat. Officers are trained to first seek cover, assess the threat and attempt to resolve the situation verbally with their de-escalation training. If there is no weapon, then officers are taught to be aware of their surroundings and attempt to resolve the situation verbally.

Q: When officers discharge their weapon, is it always a shoot-to-kill situation or are there other situations? If there are other situations, what are they and how does an officer determine when to exercise deadly force and when to restrain?

A: Officers are trained on a repetitive basis to use deadly force only to stop a threat. As soon as the threat is over – the person with a weapon stops coming after the officer or someone else, drops the weapon or the weapon falls from their hand – the officer de-escalates force. Officers are trained to shoot center mass because it is the largest target, and only shoot when someone is facing a threat of serious bodily injury or death. Police are not trained to shoot weapons out of hands or to shoot legs or arms. Officers only use their firearms when there is a threat of serious bodily injury or death to themselves or others.

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