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In Unusual Pact, Congress OK's Aid For Police De-escalation Training

In an unusual bipartisan agreement in a sharply-divided Congress, the House passed a bill that would empower law enforcement agencies across the U.S. to adopt de-escalation training when encountering individuals with mental health issues.

The bill passed 264-162 with Republican support, culminating a modest two-year effort to pass police reform legislation after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis prompted global protests against police brutality.

The measure introduced by Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX} and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) will now go to President Biden for his signature.

“By giving law enforcement the tools they need to help those experiencing mental health emergencies and other crises, we can help make communities safer by building a stronger bridge between the criminal justice system and mental health care,” Cornyn said.

Final passage happened months after the House approved a bipartisan package of public safety bills that never was taken up in the Senate, the Associated Press reports.

Many law enforcement groups favored the bill. "The implementation of de-escalation techniques would have a positive impact on public safety and the relationship between the public and law enforcement officers," said the National Fraternal Order of Police.

The bill was opposed by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), who is expected to chair the House Judiciary Committee when Republicans take over control of the chamber next month.

A GOP memo to party members said the measure "inserts the federal government into state and local policing," authorizes federal spending without budgetary offsets, and gives the Attorney General the power to "write de-escalation training curricula and penalize law enforcement groups who fail to comply with stringent reporting requirements."

While nearly one in five U.S. adults has a mental illness, untreated people are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter than other people approached by law enforcement, said the Treatment Advocacy Center, a nonprofit, said in a 2015 report.

The new bill amends a 1968 federal crime law to authorize $70 million in annual grant funding for law enforcement training on alternatives to the use of force that include scenario-based exercises for officers. It was not immediately clear how soon federal money would be made available.

It requires the Justice Department to develop a series of curriculum and training topics in partnership with stakeholders like law enforcement and civil liberties groups and mental health professionals.

“Whether it be Rodney King, or whether it be George Floyd or any of the number of incidents we’ve seen over the last 30 years: How police deal with force is at the heart of the discussion about policing,” said Chuck Wexler of the Police Executive Research Forum. “And what we have come to find out over the last five to eight years is that the training is outdated. It doesn’t live up to current-day practices.”

PERF's two-day training has a long waiting list. It began five years ago after the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, in Ferguson, Mo., and has been updated since with fresh techniques.

The idea had its genesis in the United Kingdom, where most officers don’t carry handguns. It’s a mix of classroom training and scenarios played out with actors to give officers time to work through what they’ve learned.

“You can provide as much training and de-escalation funds for the programs as you want but it doesn’t necessarily solve a lot of the problems associated with risk of death for people with severe mental illness at the hands of law enforcement,” said Elizabeth Sinclair Hancq of the Treatment Advocacy Center. That’s because the role of law enforcement is to enforce public safety, she added, not to be mental health crisis providers.


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