Police Departments Train Officers in Kindness to Reduce Cop Killings, Sparking Controversy

As cop killings spike in the U.S., police departments in the Pacific Northwest are training officers to be kinder, hoping it will make cops safer.

Eighty-eight law enforcement officers have been killed in the line of duty so far this year, 38 of them by gunfire. It’s a 41 percent increase over the same period in 2010.

While the alarming numbers have some departments calling for more caution or for cops to get tougher with non-compliant suspects, Washington State is going in the opposite direction. It’s pioneering a new training program called L.E.E.D., which stands for Listen, Explain, Equity and Dignity.

“We haven’t provided as much training on some of the verbal skills, the human psychology principals that will help our officers be safer,” King County Sheriff Sue Rahr said.

L.E.E.D. was the brainchild of New York University professor Tom Tyler, who wrote the book, "Why People Obey the Law." Tyler’s research concludes people will have a positive view of police even after getting arrested if they feel they had a chance to be heard and treated with respect. Tyler calls it procedural justice. “They (the police) do have the ultimate authority,” Tyler said. “They’re exercising that authority through a fairer procedure that leads people to feel like they have a chance to explain their side of the story.”

Not everyone is sold on the idea. Critics call L.E.E.D. political correctness run amok.

“If we have to act, we have to act,” said Rachelle Heinzen, head of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Center. “If I can’t say please or explain to you the reason why I’m doing what I’m doing, then I’m not going to, because I’m going to make sure I’m safe and everybody around me is safe.”

The L.E.E.D. program has plenty of support at the federal level. It’s endorsed by the Department of Justice, which hopes it will spread from the Pacific Northwest. “This program is not a feel-good program,” Bernard Melekian of the Justice Department's Community Oriented Policing Services said. “It’s not a hold hands and sing 'Kumbaya' program, but it’s really about connecting with people and building relationships.”

The Puget Sound has seen its share of tragic cop killings. The most recent high-profile case happened in Lakewood, Wash., where parolee Maurice Clemmons, determined to murder police officers, walked into a coffee shop one morning and gunned down four cops in cold blood.

Many current officers don’t see the need for L.E.E.D., citing the dozens of hours spent at the police academy already learning “verbal judo” and other communication skills aimed at diffusing an escalating situation.

Rich O’Neill, president of the Seattle Police Guild, says a vast majority of officers already treat citizens with respect and dignity and are not interested in being confrontational. But O’Neill and others worry about how the public will perceive the training. Will some take it as an invitation to challenge an officer’s every request during a stop?

“First and foremost the street is not the place to get into a debate and argue,” O’Neill said. “The officer at times does not have the time to sit and explain to you what they’re going to do.”

Despite the negative reaction from rank-and-file officers, other departments around the country are expected to follow Seattle’s lead by also adopting the L.E.E.D. training.

While supporters say it will make cops safer, critics point to the rising officer death toll and argue this is not the time for kindler and gentler police work.