‘Caution, empathy and compassion’: Fulton, Henry deputies to get de-escalation training

Henry County Sheriff Reginald Scandrett announces de-escalation training for 1,000 Henry and Fulton County deputies.
Henry County Sheriff Reginald Scandrett announces de-escalation training for 1,000 Henry and Fulton County deputies.

Credit: Henry County Sheriff's Office

In the wake of increased tensions between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve, two metro Atlanta sheriff’s offices will receive de-escalation training for 1,000 deputies.

Henry County Sheriff Reginald Scandrett said he and Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat will require the additional training as part of their efforts to improve police-community relations and ensure deputies are utilizing best practices during encounters with the public.

Funding for the training is the result of a partnership between soft drink giant Pepsi and the Close the Gap Foundation, which offers police training and youth mentorship programs in cities across the country. Scandrett said Friday that the de-escalation training is already underway and will likely take several months.

“You’d have to be living under a rock if you didn’t see the pulse of the nation has high blood pressure now,” he said, referring to strained relationships between police and residents across the U.S. “It’s important that we train our officers consistently to make sure they approach scenes with caution, empathy and compassion.”

Having that training, Scandrett said, will help “calm the waters,” particularly when it comes to interacting with those who may not trust law enforcement.

He said more than 30 certified trainers are receiving the training and will pass along what they learn to employees at both departments in a “train the trainer” scenario. Of the 1,000 deputies and detention officers receiving the training, about 300 work for Henry County and the remaining 700 or so work for Fulton.

Labat called the program a “big step” in the agency’s efforts to foster positive police-community relations.

“Giving our deputies at the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office the opportunity to take part in this de-escalation training program is an important step in criminal justice reform,” the sheriff said in a statement.

In addition to the de-escalation training, Scandrett’s office said Henry County deputies will undergo regular psychological evaluations and reviews of their interactions with the public in order to provide them the “tools necessary to adapt to high-stress situations.”

Dr. Joseph Hill, the psychologist for the Henry Sheriff’s Office and several other metro Atlanta departments, said most officers only undergo psychological evaluations when they first join an agency. “In some cases, they may not ever be seen again,” he said.

Under the department’s new policy, however, even veteran deputies who have been with the Henry County Sheriff’s Office for decades will be brought in for annual psych evaluations.

“If the officer is experiencing some difficulties, we can identify those early on so they don’t rear their heads either here in the jail or out in public,” Hill said, adding that employees who may need counseling will have access to that. “We want them to be at their best as they serve the community.”

Scandrett said most deputies only undergo psychological evaluations when they’re hired, if they’re involved in a shooting or when they join tactical teams. He hopes the new policy will make for more well-rounded employees — not just on the clock but also in their personal lives.

“It’s important that we consistently check in on their well-being, so we’re going to make it mandatory for the detention officers and the deputies to receive psychological testing and wellness checks at least once a year,” he said.

Fulton and Henry aren’t the only metro Atlanta sheriff’s offices placing an emphasis on de-escalation.

A spokeswoman for the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office said the state requires that sworn officers undergo at least one hour of such training per year, but the department typically exceeds that, mandating de-escalation training for all deputies regardless of rank.

“For instance, in 2019 the mandatory de-escalation training for all officers included two hours of classroom instruction and four hours of scenario/role-play training,” agency spokeswoman Deputy Ashley Castiblanco said.

That training was scaled back last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and most deputies only received the classroom instruction or online training.

In addition to de-escalation tactics, Gwinnett deputies are taught to recognize autism and Tourette syndrome, as well as how to appropriately respond to mental health crises, Castiblanco said. De-escalation tactics are also incorporated into the department’s use-of-force training.

“De-escalation training is critical in law enforcement because it helps our deputies understand the signs of someone experiencing a mental and emotional crisis,” she said. “We teach the deputies the importance of empathy, effective communication skills (and) the significance of listening while operating in a stressful environment without compromising officer safety.”

While skills and training are important, officials said they don’t work in every situation. Castiblanco said they are “merely tools available to law enforcement” in critical situations they hope to resolve peacefully.

In neighboring DeKalb County, sheriff’s deputies are also required to undergo regular de-escalation training, according to Sheriff Melody Maddox, who said it’s the best way to resolve an issue before it becomes a “volatile situation.”

“We use this tool to bridge gaps and effectively communicate with the public as well as the inmates within the (jail),” she said, adding that the goal is to reduce the potential for further aggression or violence.

Scandrett said while he believes most law enforcement officers are inherently good, there are a few “bad apples” who cast a negative shadow on the larger profession.

“We know that there are bad apples in everything,” he said. “Quite frankly, the (majority) of the men and women who don the brown and blue uniforms every day are outstanding. But every now and then, you get those bad apples ... It’s incumbent upon leadership to make sure we find them and deal with them accordingly.”

He said he hopes the combination of training and regular psychological evaluations will improve his department and its relationship with residents.