The latest Seattle Police shooting highlights concerns around de-escalation during crisis calls
The Office of Police Accountability previously recommended Seattle police revise and add clarification to their de-escalation policy. They declined.
On February 16th, officers from the Seattle Police Department (SPD) responded to reports of a suicidal man, walking along The Seattle Waterfront with a knife to his throat. Less than 20 seconds after SPD arrived at the scene, the man’s body laid motionless in the road, killed by officers.
In an initial statement, SPD stated that “police attempted to use a less-lethal tool, but the device was ineffective. The man moved toward officers, and two Seattle Police officers fired, fatally striking the man.” The department later amended their statement, clarifying Port of Seattle Police officers used less-than-lethal weapons against the individual, later reported to be a 40mm launcher.
In released body cam footage, no SPD officers attempt to use less-than-lethal tools before shooting and killing the man, later identified as Derek J. Hayden.
This latest shooting has sparked new concern and criticism around the department’s approach to de-escalating situations, especially those involving individuals experiencing a mental health crisis. It’s difficult to ignore the similarities between the killing of Derek Hayden and the killings of Terry Carver, Ryan Smith, and Charleena Lyles, all of which involved SPD officers killing someone in crisis.
The SPD de-escalation policy is relatively vague but is built around four core considerations: Communication, Time, Distance, and Shielding. In the case of the police shooting on February 16th, there are serious questions to be answered on how each of those considerations were factored in leading up to SPD officers killing of Derek Hayden.
In 2018, The Office of Police Accountability (OPA) recommended SPD revise and clarify their policy on de-escalation. In a Policy Recommendation letter to then-police chief Carmen Best, OPA Director Andrew Myerberg wrote:
“[T]he de-escalation policy is consistently one of the most challenging policies to apply and evaluate. When looking at it, OPA generally has a number of questions. Do all the suggested Page 9 of 12 de-escalation tools called out in the policy need to be used before force can be applied? If not, how many? How long do officers need to try to de-escalate before they can use force? 2 minutes? 5 minutes? 1 hour? 2 hours? When is physical confrontation “immediately necessary” to permit force to be used? What is meant by the phrase “without compromising law enforcement priorities”? If effectuating an arrest is always a compelling law enforcement priority, does that not potentially unworkably expand the policy?” The Seattle Police Department denied the request for policy amendments and improvements.
When examining body cam footage from these police killings, some argue the 21-Foot Rule or Tueller Drill should exonerate officers for these killings of people in crisis. Typically, the 21-Foot Rule or Tueller Drill are not formally a part of police training but they have become an informal creed amongst the law enforcement community. The drill, dating back to the early 1980s, takes into account the time it takes to draw a holstered pistol, chamber a round, and fire upon a charging person with a knife.
Others, including law enforcement experts, say the 21-Foot Rule is too simplistic and can be used to justify shooting an individual with a knife without taking into account other factors of the situation.
In the case of John T. Williams, a First Nations woodcarver, killed by police, the officer in question cited John T. Williams’ proximity as a significant factor in his decision to shoot him. The shooting was ruled “unjustified” by the police department’s Firearms Review Board.
Many experts also point out how police in other countries take a different approach in de-escalating situations involving individuals suffering from a mental health crisis and are able to subdue people wielding knives, machetes, or other sharp objects without using deadly force. In the United Kingdom, police were able to disarm a man with a machete who was acting in a far more aggressive manner and in a much more confined space, than the situation along The Seattle Waterfront.
It is unlikely officers will face significant discipline for their actions. The SPD policy, as currently written likely, will exonerate the officers of any wrongdoing. However, the circumstances that led up to an officer feeling the need to use lethal force need to be examined, and significant updates to the department’s de-esclation policy need to be considered.
On February 16th, Seattle police responded to a mental health crisis. Derek Hayden’s final words were, “Do it, do it. Please, kill me.”
The Seattle Police Department was quick to grant him his wish.