Inside look at NYPD crisis training with body cams

The fatal police shooting of Miguel Richards in the Bronx was the first captured by NYPD body cameras. It showed us what happens when officers confront an emotionally disturbed person with a weapon. The NYPD believes the new technology combined with crisis intervention training will make it safer for everyone.

The NYPD gave me an exclusive opportunity to wear a body camera and experience this cutting-edge training first hand with some sergeants. The body camera itself is about the size of a pack of cigarettes and is clipped on securely to the uniform.

So far, 860 officers have been trained with them, according to Assistant Chief Matthew Pontillo.

The NYPD said it received more than 155,000 911 calls about emotionally disturbed people in 2016—more than 400 a day. With the high volume of incidents, and under federal court-ordered reforms, the department moved to interactive scenario training.

"With this training, in particular, we've layered in a whole number of other elements, beyond typical police training," Inspector Gregory Sheehan said. "Here we utilize professional improvisation actors to help us to portray individuals with mental illness and actually role-play exactly what it is we're looking to accomplish."

The training instructors told me that to turn on the body camera, all you have to do is flip a switch down and the camera record. And to turn it off, all it requires is a flip up.

Right now, the priority is to train officers and supervisors who work the 3 p.m.-to-11 p.m. night shift, when most incidents happen. On actual patrol, routine calls are not recorded.

"Any incident that escalates, or any incident that is of an investigatory or enforcement nature, we certainly want to record those incidents," Pontillo said.

The training sergeant explained that we would be facing a scenario of a "10-52" dispute from an anonymous caller inside an apartment building. It is a common type of call. A family member or roommate calls 911 because someone in the household is acting erratically or dangerously. A cornerstone of the training is de-escalation.

In this scenario, a man called for help for his brother, who suffers from schizophrenia and was fighting with him. The responding officers separated the two and then we tried to calm him down. It was a talk-down instead of a takedown. After the situation was resolved, there was a debrief.

"I think you guys did really well. I like that you separated the two brothers... and asked the other one to wait outside," said James Holmes, a licensed clinical social worker. "It was very clear from the beginning that you were here to help."

This training takes place inside the new academy in College Point, Queens.

In the next scenario, at a movie-like set of a city street, a couple argued in front of the bank where the man works. The situation called for turning on my body camera, but I got so wrapped up in what was going on I neglected to do that. Luckily, the two officers with me had theirs operating.

The clinician told me that the scenarios help the officers avoid emotional contagion, where a situation gets amped up instead of calmed down.

"The key here—what we talk with the officers about—is having awareness about that," Holmes said. "Being aware of your own emotions and what are you bringing to the situation." 

After the shift, the officers dock their body cameras so the video can be downloaded and put on a central server.

The crisis intervention training with the body cameras is done over a three-day period. A big part of it includes showing the officers how to recognize the most common mental health issues facing city residents and giving them the tools to talk those in crisis into treatment instead of taking them to jail.