Interview with OPA Director Myerberg in aftermath of Tuesday’s police shooting

Tuesday evening SPD officers shot and killed a man wielding a knife along the Seattle waterfront.  Last night SPD released officer bodycam footage of the shooting, which raises substantial questions about the officers’ actions and generally how SPD officers are trained to respond to an individual with a knife and to crisis situations.  Today I spoke at length with Andrew Myerberg, Director of the Office of Police Accountability, to explore those questions and related issues.

 

According to SPD’s spokesperson and written statement, SPD was called to the scene by Port of Seattle Police after they had spotted the man, saw that he had cut himself with his knife, and failed to subdue him with a “less lethal” weapon.

Here is the video footage that SPD released last night. WARNING: it is graphic and disturbing. The first part of the video is the audio recording of the Port of Seattle call to SPD, followed by the bodycam footage from the officers that shot and killed the man.

Take-aways from the video:

  • It happened very quickly.
  • The man was holding and waving around the knife in a way that could be considered threatening — and certainly dangerous to anyone who might come within close proximity to him.
  • He was clearly in crisis.
  • Just before he was shot, he was walking quickly toward the officers, saying, “Do it, do it, please kill me.”
  • This is an incredible, heartbreaking tragedy.

SPD’s internal Force Review Board will be investigating the shooting, as will the OPA. At a later point, there will also be an inquest.

While Director Myerberg could not comment in the specifics of his pending investigation, he was generous with his time in discussing many of the questions this incident raises about how SPD officers are trained to respond to a person armed with a knife, as well as when that person is in crisis or suicidal.

Below is the transcript of my interview with Myerberg, lightly edited for clarity and to remove two brief, unrelated interruptions.

 


Kevin Schofield:  Director Myerberg, thanks for your time. In light of some of the recent police shooting incidents, I wanted to talk to you about the policies that govern SPD officers’ responses to encountering an armed individual, and specifically when the person is armed with a knife. So let me start with this question: what are SPD officers trained to do when a person approaches them with a knife?

Andrew Myerberg: So it’s a really good question. You know, I think that the training with any armed subject is very similar, where you want a tactical plan, you want to have a team mentality. So you have less lethal, you have lethal cover, you have a contact person hands on. So you’re supposed to have all these different components for the team. But obviously, the dynamics will be different if it’s someone with a gun versus someone with a knife. Ideally, if it’s someone with a knife, you have more time theoretically than if it’s someone with a gun, because just at the distance that you can stand off at. I mean, if it’s a good knife, you would want to have a long gun there. You want to have a rifle just because that gives you, again, time, distance, and shielding. And you’d certainly want less lethal tools. So a 40-millimeter [launcher for “less lethal” rubber-tipped bullets] potentially. So that’s generally I think, what they would want to do, right, those are the tactics, you would want to have a team mentality, and you would want to have that plan. The question, though, is and what we’ve seen, I think, both with this shooting, and with the Caver shooting is, you know, adherence to the plan, is there that pre-planning? What happens when people arrive kind of after the initial officers have arrived? Are they part of that plan? Do they know what’s going on? I mean, those are the things that certainly we’re evaluating in both of those cases.

Schofield: Okay, so you mentioned less lethal weapons. What are they trained in, in terms of defensive options other than using lethal force?

Myerberg: Well, I think certainly for a knife case, your primary tool, you would want a taser. But depending on the circumstances, the taser may not be effective, because the taser requires closeness. A taser really is not effective past 15 feet. And that’s really similar to OC spray, it’s not going to do much, unless you’re at a close distance. The 40-millimeter really is the tool for this situation where you have standoff range at about 100 to 120 feet. And this is what it’s designed for, again, stay back, create your perimeter, and then be able to use the 40-millimeter, which is not limited by clothes too, in cold weather or rainy weather which we get a lot of, that can stop the taser probe. So if the taser probes don’t contact skin, it’s useless where the 40-millimeter can obviously not pierce but can cause that pain compliance, even if you’re wearing a jacket or sweatpants, whatever you’re wearing,

Schofield: How are the officers trained to de-escalate a situation when the person’s brandishing a knife in a threatening way?

Myerberg: I think it’s like any other de-escalation. I mean, certainly the training that occurs during CIT training, you want the officers to be giving kind of open ended directions, and not just kind of “drop the knife, drop the knife, drop the knife.”  I think you want to be saying, “the knife is worrying me, the knife is scaring me, are you okay, we want to help you, we don’t want to do this, we want you to come in,” this rapport talking to the officer.

Schofield: So they do go through training for de-escalation for situations with them.

Myerberg: Yes.

Schofield: And are there ways that the training for a knife would be different than with a gun?

Myerberg: Again, it’s going to depend on circumstances, right? Because all de-escalation is only required when safe or feasible. So in a situation with a gun, if you’re confronted with someone with a gun, and they’re raising the gun up and in your direction, there’s no de-escalation that is trained to be engaged in there. You’re trained to, to fire basically, because of a deadly threat that’s posed, where a knife doesn’t pose the same immediacy of threat. I mean, obviously, if the person advances towards you, the threat level increases, but it’s a different type. It’s a different type of threat.

Schofield: Okay, so let’s ratchet this up. How does the situation and the training change if the person is clearly in crisis?

Myerberg: So the de-escalation policy requires you to consider, as part of the escalation, is this individual’s non compliance or is this individual’s actions based on alcoholism or drug abuse crisis? Certainly, it’s a consideration.

Schofield: Or mental health crisis.

Myerberg: Or mental illness or crisis. But I’m not sure, ultimately, if the person advances towards you with a knife, it may not make a difference, like the fact that they are in a crisis doesn’t sometimes create more steps if you’ve already deemed de-escalation to be no longer safe or feasible. It’s just a requirement that you consider it and that you try to get resources on scene. But in this type of a situation where it’s exigent… So this was not, you know, there’s a guy in his apartment who has a knife, and he’s threatening to harm himself. That’s going to be different than, for example, a man is moving through the street, and he is cutting himself and is moving towards a populated area. I’m not necessarily saying that that’s what we saw the other night. But in those situations, you may not be able to have time to call in all the resources you would want. I mean, ideally, you would want the Crisis Response Team there. Ideally, you would want medics on scene, ideally, you want a sergeant on scene, if not a higher ranking officer, but that’s going to be dictated by exigency. And just so you know, Kevin, when we talk about training, I just want to be super clear, first of all, you can’t train for every situation, right? So training is general. You don’t train for all these dynamic situations, you can’t train for them, because you don’t know about them until they occur. You can train to get officers thinking on their feet, but maybe a regular patrol officer will get one rep in this type of training in a calendar year, maybe two, but it will generally be in a classroom setting and won’t be able to really have as much time dedicated towards training as they might want to. And no department does this particularly well, that I know of. There’s no one that’s really figured out how to deal with people with knives, particularly when those people are mobile, right, a static person, with a knife is a lot different. It’s a lot different threat level than someone who’s moving either towards officers or towards other individuals.

Schofield: So how are officers supposed to respond when a person is threatening self harm or suicide?

Myerberg: It’s a really interesting debate right now. I would say OPA sees a ton of calls, a ton of cases where officers are called, like, let’s say the subjects where the person’s best friend calls or friend calls and says, “My friend is suicidal.” They have a plan, they’re going to harm themselves. Officers come to the home, they make entry, either forcible entry or pushing the door open when the person comes to the door. They say “we have to take you to the hospital,” the person says “no, no, no.” And the officer is compelled to handcuff them, put them on a gurney, transport them to the hospital and at times use force. And I think there is a debate as we’re moving away from saying, should officers be going to those types of crisis calls? Should officers be using force to compel someone to go to the hospital? I think many officers would make a moral argument to say, I’ll take the complaint, I’ll use the force, because at the end of the day, I’m preserving that person’s life. But perhaps other people would say that person should have agency over their life and should be able to make the decision to self-harm if they would like. I don’t know that I know the answer. Certainly they have a legal ability to go into the room into the apartment under community caretaking. But whether they should is certainly a question we talk a lot about, and I think you had said in your email or maybe someone else had emailed me about this was how would this fit in with our reimagining defunding, reimagining policing? I don’t know who goes to this call, like CAHOOTS wouldn’t go to this call, this would not be their type of a call because the person is armed with a knife. So if you want to adopt that model, I don’t think that that would be an appropriate agency. Are the powers that be thinking of this type of incident, who you would have go to it? Because theoretically, you could have had the best tactics in the world and may not have made a difference for this case, if the person committed on harming himself or having someone else kill him. It may have been unavoidable.

Schofield: That leads to a couple of other questions I had, one of which was: how do we expect officers to respond when presented with a person who seems committed to you know, what some would call “suicide by police,” trying to provoke the police into shooting them?

Myerberg: Right. I mean, in an ideal situation… So what we see with this case is very early on Port of Seattle initially responds and they become aware that this guy is threatening himself with a knife. They see him while they’re in their patrol vehicle, they follow him for a period of time then get out on foot and what they’re doing eventually, even some SPD officers join, what they’re doing is they’re pushing him or they’re just following him to a more unpopulated area. Because in a perfect situation, you would create almost like a barricaded situation, where you have a standoff. The person standing there with the weapon. You can create a perimeter you, you keep innocent [bystanders] out of the perimeter, and then you bring in a hostage negotiator or someone that’s crisis certified or a crisis response specialist that can come in and try to talk to the person. But again, that depends on a lot of things. It depends on, did the officers come up with a plan and articulate the plans to everyone on that team?  Do they all comply with the plan? Do people freelance, which is generally your problem, right? Or did something happen where the person gets startled? They make their own individual decision to say, “you know, I’m not going to abide by your plan,” because you can have the best plan in the world. And the person could say, no, I’m committed to X, Y, and Z. And there’s not much you can do about it. But it’s a really good question. I think in the ideal situation, though, you create kind of a standoff, where you have people on the perimeter, you have your 40 millimeter, you have your other tools, and you just give it time, and you hope that you can negotiate the person to drop the knife.

Schofield: Tying together a couple of things you said: you mentioned, in situations where the CAHOOTS model or one of these other models from one of those cities looking at civilian led crisis response teams may not respond to cases where somebody is actually armed. But on the other hand, if somebody is in crisis, and particularly is, threatening self harm or suicide, having an armed police officer show up, could actually escalate it even further.

Myerberg: I think that’s accurate. Yeah.

Schofield: Is this a place where you’re looking to make recommendations? Do you see anybody else out there who has better models for doing this? Or is trying innovative things? What is the best thinking out there around this?

Myerberg: Yeah, really good question. So let me address the first point first. Again, not all calls with a knife are created equal, right?  So we had a cas, the other day that I watched, I was watching a body worn video where a woman was suicidal. And the caller said, “she’s gonna slit her wrists in the bathtub.” So they respond, they don’t necessarily perceive her to be an active threat. She’s a threat to herself, and not necessarily a threat to officers. They get there, the knife is in the bathtub, the bathtub full of water.  So that’s, presumably she was going to do what she threatened to do. But it’s a different call, right? I think you could have a civilian entity that would respond to that call. There’s no “he’s threatening his partner in the apartment,” or “he’s walking down the street, and we think there’s X, Y and Z going on.” That’s one call. The harder call, though, is what we saw, both with the with the Caver shooting, and with this incident, where you see a person walking down the street with a viewed weapon that is either causing active harm to themselves or threatening others with harm. We need to respond ASAP, right, it goes over the air as exigent response. I don’t know, whether you would find a civilian entity that I know of across the country right now that would be geared up or able to respond to that. That being said, is it always the best idea to have law enforcement to respond to it? Probably not. Because if you have a hammer, that’s usually what you’re going to bring to the response. And ultimately, everyone knows when officers go to that, fundamentally there’s a chance that if the person approaches the officers, they will be shot and killed. And that’s never the response that we want. That’s not the response the officers want. What I will say is, I don’t know of any jurisdiction that does this well. I think looking at Europe could be an option. I think knife usage, for example, in the UK, and in Britain, there’s just a higher percentage of deadly force encounters that involve knives, because there’s just less of a prevalence of firearms in the UK, where here, we have a higher number of firearms show, generally, what we see in these kind of deadly force scenarios are firearm situations. So I don’t know that there is an agency across the country that’s doing it particularly well, after the Caver case, and certainly, you know, even in the early morning hours, when we were looking at this case, Lisa Judge and I both talked about that there has to be a better way. And I’ve already talked to the department about, could you create… for now, because of COVID and just because of pure reps and the money it would cost to do it, could you create a video training that you would take people from the training unit and put them in these dynamic situations to say, here, watch this video, and do different mock scenarios in an unknown area, unknown jurisdiction, to say, someone running at you, someone advancing, here’s the plan, you want to put together here are the different things you want to do and to at least put that out as an E-learning, or like roll call learnings to get people on the same page. I also think, and I think the department could be committed to this if under the right circumstances, is to come out and say expressly, “Our goal is to have zero shooting deaths with knife cases.” Zero, right, that should be the goal. And I think that’s kind of where Chief Diaz’s head is at right now. I know Lisa judge has a preliminary conversation with him. I’ve spoken to the compliance chief. If there’s no way to do it, there should be a way. And I think Seattle tends to innovate in these areas, all criticism aside, just because people will always criticize departments across the country, sometimes for good reason, about response to incidents, Seattle generally does innovate in these areas. And I think this is another area where they could innovate in, and to create that model that other jurisdictions look at. So, you know, Lisa and I already talking about what we are going to recommend. I don’t know that I’ll even wait for these cases to be done, I probably will issue some sort of a letter to the Chief to say, “this is what we’re seeing, let’s not allow this to become a pattern, let’s nip this in the bud now.” The other issue is, and this is something we’ve seen as far as a policy change, in these scenarios, especially where it’s exigent, but it’s not a “help the officer” call, is mandatorily dispatching a sergeant to these calls. You should have a supervisor on scene to help make decisions, because what we see, because of people leaving, like there is, in some respects, a brain drain at SPD. You’re losing these eight- to ten- year officers who have gone through these trainings, who have done the work to be CIT certified. And what you have is sometimes a lot of younger officers that are put in situations that they’ve never been in before that are asked to make the split second decisions. They’re still required by policy and by training and tactics to make good decisions and to rely on muscle memory. But I think it’s in some respects, setting people up to fail if you don’t have supervisors on scene to help make some of these more difficult calls.

Schofield: So you’re saying there should be a class of calls that SPD responds to, this being one of them, where automatically a sergeant is part of the response.

Myerberg: Automatically dispatched. So look, that’s not rare, right? There are calls where sergeants are dispatched, but for example, if someone makes a complaint of a malicious harassment or bias-element harassment, a sergeant is dispatched to that call. And the expectation is they’re going to go. Why aren’t we taking a knife case just as serious? Sergeants generally are monitoring the radio. But they should be dispatched to the call.

Schofield: How frequent are knife cases?

Myerberg: This type of case, I don’t think it’s particularly frequent. But I will say it does happen. And I think there’s scenarios where the 40-millimeter is used effectively, or less lethal tools are used effectively or if the person is convinced to drop the knife like, again, as you know, fatal shootings or any shootings or frankly any “Type III” force is exceedingly rare in Seattle, and really in any jurisdiction, but we don’t have the numbers. I mean, we can easily figure that out. But I don’t think the numbers are particularly high, to be honest.

Schofield: I’m trying to remember how broadly the training is for the 40-millimeter weapons. That’s a fairly new introduction.

Myerberg: It is and you don’t have that many officers that are qualified for the 4- millimeter.

Schofield: Do you think that needs to get expanded?

Myerberg: I would. I would. I mean, for me, I think the 40-millimeter is the best tool, the best less lethal tool available to police officers. And I think, that’s one of my big worries and my criticisms of the crowd control ordinances because it would limit the 40-millimeter only to SWAT, where I think that there should be patrol officers that are able to utilize that tool, because it’s the only tool that I know of besides a rifle, right, that lets you stand off from someone. It gives you 100 feet of distance from somebody. And where we see things go wrong is where distance becomes short, right? Because people get nervous people move towards you quickly. And that’s where things go wrong. So the more distance you could have, again, that’s why time distance and shielding, the distance gives you time, right? If you have distance, and if you have a rifle, you can step behind your car door like this, all these things that are beneficial from having long range.

This is not the outcome that anybody wants, like literally, it is an incredibly depressing, demoralizing result. And I think for the officers, for everyone involved, for that person’s family, for that person, like, it’s just sad, and how do we prevent that from ever happening again? I mean, that’s got to be the goal of our offices and of SPD at this point.

Schofield: Okay. Well, just quickly, on this waterfront case, what do you expect is your timeline for investigating it?

Myerberg: So I think realistically, it will be close to the six months, The Caver case the if [garbled] case and this case, they all very much revolve around, in my mind, de-escalation. It’s the tactics. It’s what steps did you take to de-escalate prior to using force? So one of the things that’s really helpful for those cases is for me to wait until FIT is done and the FRB is done. And generally, that’s what I’ll do, because I want to see that deliberative discussion from the department because that one forum, particularly for a hyper-technical kind of tactics training case, it’s going to inform my decision down the road. It’s not dispositive, right, because I can disagree and I do disagree with the FRB at times. But generally I’m interested to hear: does the FRB think that the officer acted consistent with training and tactics? Because if no, it’s going to inform my decision on the escalation.

Schofield: FIT is the “force investigation team” and FRB is the “force review board,” both within SPD that look at different levels of use of force.

Myerberg: Yeah, so the best way to think about it and I think you and Omari have both done a good job in covering this but FIT is an administrative fact gatherer, FIT is looking at what occurred and they’re doing basically a very, very detailed fact intensive investigation, administrative investigation into the use of force. Once that case is done, it will go to the FRB that’s doing a qualitative analysis and saying, okay, we’re reviewing the FIT file. And we’re also applying policy, tactics, training, to say, “Okay, what happened? Why did it happen? And should it have happened?” So those are really helpful for me because they inform our investigation. So FIT just has they do less cases, you know, we investigate 500 a year, they investigate 30. So they have more resources to dedicate to the cases. So there’s just things that they do that we can’t do. And FRB, obviously, we want to know, what does the department, their experts, what are they thinking about this case? How are they proceeding? And particularly their folks from training and specialized units like the range and other units like that? So because of that will be much closer — this is a really roundabout way of answering your question — is that we’ll be closer to that six month period. So I want to wait for those other processes to play.

Schofield: Anything else you think people should know?

Myerberg: I think I think you’re asking the right question in that I think nationwide and certainly in Seattle, there has got to be a better way to look at these cases. And to handle these cases.  And this really will be a cooperative process for developing policies and that I think the OIG will do that national check to say “what are other jurisdictions doing?” And we will, kind of like we did with the less-lethal tools, we’ll use case studies to say, okay, we’ve seen these three, cases that we investigated, here’s how we think we could have better addressed them. So I think in tandem, and hopefully the CPC will help out too. But in tandem, I think and if the department’s interested, we could work together, develop this training, and roll it out, ASAP and make it a priority. So I think that’s what I would look for if I were you. And certainly, you know, I’m happy to come back and talk about that once that gets off the ground. And once maybe you’ve seen the letters or the communications between my office OIG and SPD.

Schofield: And I hope you’ll share those. So thank you very much, I really appreciate it, and good luck with all the work you have to do on this.

Myerberg: Thanks, Kevin.

 

3 comments

  1. Great interview. Succeeds in exploring the complexity of these issues while never losing sight of the big picture.

  2. Kevin, Thank you for sharing this interview. I know that the officer could not delve into this case too deeply but I would like to know why none of the responding officers had the right tool, 40MM, for this incident. Also, there was a narrative coming out of SPD that “less lethal” options had been pursued. I certainly, didn’t see this in the video. They showed up, loaded the long gun and fired. I do understand that it could have been difficult to disarm the individual but it shouldn’t have been that difficult for the officer to avoid harm to themselves or bystanders. It’s a torturous scenario for all involved and I am glad you are reporting on it.

    1. As you said, Myerberg couldn’t speak about the details, which are still being collected.

      We did talk about the fact that 40mm launchers are still a relatively new addition to the set of weapons that SPD officers use, so there aren’t many officers currently trained to use it yet. Training has been tough And the Council’s draft legislation would put constraints on that. All officers are required to carry at least one less-lethal weapon at all times, but that doesn’t mean that it will be the optimal tool for every scenario they encounter.

      SPD corrected their narrative to say that the Port of Seattle Police, who were the first to engage with the man and later called SPD, used a less-lethal weapon on him that was not successful.

      I think critiques of the officers’ responses are potentially valid, including that they didn’t try to de-escalate and in fact may have escalated by yelling “drop the knife” and pulling out the big gun. On the other hand, it did happen very fast and the man was clearly headed toward the officer with the knife raised. Watching the incident left me upset and confused, which is why I reached out to Myerberg for an interview so I could understand what the policy and training are for these kinds of scenarios. I still don’t feel that I have all the answers, and I’m looking forward to seeing what the investigations bring out and hearing the ensuing discussion.

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