In Auburn, 911 Wants To Know If You’re A Veteran
The computer screen in Officer Andy Gould’s patrol car rhythmically ticks off details of emergencies from dispatch.
Gould, a 25-year veteran of the Auburn Police Department, wraps up a burglary and gets called to a suspicious subject nearby. A 13-year-old has threatened to kill two people in the house with a baseball bat.
As Gould drives, text from the dispatchers scrolls up the screen. It tells him where to go for his next call, what the problem is — and whether the people involved have ever been in the military.
Recruits at Washington state’s Law Enforcement Academy are learning how to handle police calls that involve military personnel and veterans. Washington is home to more than 65,000 active duty service members and more than 600,000 veterans.
The training, which began last year, helps police recognize the challenges that some service members face when they return home from war and the potential danger they may pose to law enforcement.
Gould says dispatchers started asking about military experience a few years ago. It’s not necessarily the person’s propensity for violence, Gould says, it’s more about safety and practicality.
“If we have a guy that we’re looking for who’s a suspect in a crime, and they ask that question, it’s because he has elevated training that could be a danger to us,” Gould said. “He knows how to shoot, move and communicate.”
Gould – a combat veteran himself – says his military experience sometimes helps him establish rapport with other veterans, but not always.
“Especially when we’re responding to someone in a mental crisis and they’re not the ones who called. Sometimes they're not happy when we get there," Gould said.
Gould remembers one call about an armed man threatening suicide. He was a Marine veteran and had barricaded himself in his apartment with a shotgun. Dispatchers learned that the man was part of a Marine unit called First FAST, which stands for Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team.
Gould knew from his time in the Marines that the man was highly trained.
“You have to take that into consideration when you’re setting up and trying to deal with that guy, because if he wanted to wreck some havoc he certainly could,” Gould said.
“Had I not been there to tell my fellow officers that, hey this guy’s highly trained, let's be very, very careful, it would have gone right over their heads."
In Auburn, where 8 percent of the population has served in the military, crisis response training is mandatory for all officers. In Seattle a shorter, abbreviated training is required but the longer course is optional. Overall more than half the state’s law enforcement agencies have officers who are trained in how to defuse people in a mental health crisis.
A class at the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Center in Burien is intended to give law enforcement officers more cultural awareness about veterans.
Former Marine Josh Penner leads a class of about two dozen officers from Seattle and Auburn. They’re participating in a 40-hour crisis intervention training program.
Penner compares military veterans to police officers as the two are often stereotyped.
“There’s a lot of incorrect ways veterans, or law enforcement officers, are identified by the general public,” Penner says. “We’ve got gender, shape, color, religion, all the way down to behavior.”
To illustrate his point, Penner flips to a screen filled with news headlines of vets in crisis. “Veteran lost his home, nearly committed suicide," Penner reads.
Not every veteran has mental health problems, Penner says, but people who have served in the military can be culturally different. They’re used to using acronyms, he tells the group. When they use salty language, he says, it means they like you.
And in some cases they’ve been trained to react differently under pressure.
Bob Graham has managed the program since it was established in 2008.
“If they can identify that they’re a veteran that opens up a different gamut of de-escalation tools that you can use,” Graham says. “And if you have officers that have a veteran background, they’re going to be more effective.”
For Auburn Officer Gould, knowing that night that the suicidal man was a Marine veteran informed the department’s response.
Gould says other officers were able to talk with him and persuade him to put down his shotgun and leave his apartment. “He was at that point very cooperative.You know he was having an emotional breakdown. He was in mental crisis.”
The man was taken in an ambulance for a mental health evaluation.