Amid the volley of slogans and argumentation in Minneapolis over whether eliminating the Police Department would enhance public safety, St. Paul has managed the latter without the former.
The means: an officer training program called Response to Resistance and Aggression (RRA), which the department first instituted in its academy in 2015 and expanded to in-service officers after that. The results of a roughly five-year study of the program are now in and show promise for reducing harm to all parties, including through reduced use of less-lethal weapons.
"When you see all the talk about police reform right now, we're like, 'We changed all this stuff five years ago,'" said Sgt. Sean Zauhar, who is part of the SPPD's training unit. He helped design the new program and completed the data analysis. "We're ahead of the game."
Designed by Zauhar and Officers Chad Malmberg and Tom Menton, who have backgrounds in combat sports, the program emphasizes physical tactics that minimize pain and injuries to officers and suspects alike, while keeping suspects safely under control. (St. Paul's program shares some similarities with other training programs that teach martial arts, like the one in Marietta, Ga., that the Star Tribune Editorial Board highlighted in June.) Officers learn maneuvers that rely on leverage and basic body mechanics and that work regardless of their own size and stature.
"If any technique [did] not work with a smaller-stature officer against a larger suspect, we got rid of it," Zauhar said.
St. Paul officers learn and practice de-escalation tactics as well, and they also respond to calls in teams — a safer setup, because one overwhelmed officer may resort to more force without other options.
And indeed, before the RRA program, lone officers took down suspects 40% more often, whereas now they tend to wait for help. Officers also used to resort to what's called "pain compliance" much more often, which involves inflicting enough pain on someone for an officer to gain control. But besides being potentially cruel, it can also be ineffective and unreliable.
"A lot of people that we deal with are under the influence of chemicals," Zauhar said. "They might be in some type of mental health crisis where they have a significant tolerance for pain." These people didn't necessarily respond the way officers expected, and officers would overcompensate, risking injury.
Since RRA training has been in use, though, the use of pain-compliance techniques and less-lethal weapons decreased by 4-9% each year.
Other numbers: SPPD saw a 37% reduction in use-of-force incidents on average. Incidents in which officers strike suspects are down an astonishing 86% — meaning many fewer kicks, punches, and so on. Officers use pepper spray 62% less often. And they use their Tasers, on average, 39% less often.
"[The] tactics they're using are ones that were tried and true … in these martial arts categories, so some of these things are quite old," said Cmdr. Jack Serier, director of training. "But [we're] now adapting them to what we do."
And these improvements are actually more dramatic than the numbers suggest, because SPPD now makes much more careful note of injuries than it used to. All those statistics feed into the two that most summarize the program's success: 55% fewer suspect injuries and 25% fewer officer injuries.
Even with the new training, the department has faced allegations of excessive force in recent years. This May, a former officer was sentenced to six years in prison for using excessive force during a 2016 arrest involving a police dog.
But the overall reduction in harm thanks to the new training is a clear public good, and the SPPD should continue to be scrupulous in its use of force. The department has also shown a commitment to transparency by releasing comprehensive reports of use-of-force incidents, and it plans to release more. Anyone can view them at tinyurl.com/sppd-reports.
The ongoing debate over how to improve policing can be vague and aspirational, lacking in concrete data and outcomes. St. Paul's program provides both — all the better for officers and the public. The department should be commended for moving beyond the slogans and debate.