More than two months after a Bexar County sheriff’s deputy shot and killed a Black man with mental health issues, the department’s officers received new training in de-escalation and physical restraint techniques.
On Wednesday, 28 SWAT and mental health team members from the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office sat for the first training of the CALM Approach. The acronym stands for communicate, active physical control maneuvers, lateral recovery restraint, and minimization, all techniques that emphasize de-escalation during arrests and reducing injuries to officers and citizens.
The CALM Approach, developed by a local law enforcement training consulting company, is one of the tools the sheriff’s department has introduced to bolster its use-of-force response training. The nationwide discussion around police use of force was brought to the forefront locally with the August death of Damian Lamar Daniels, a Black Bexar County resident who was killed by a sheriff’s deputy responding to a mental health call. Daniels, a military veteran whose family described him as suicidal, had a gun and began struggling with deputies as they attempted to take him into custody for mental health treatment. A deputy then fatally shot Daniels.
The County also has responded to Daniels’ death with other initiatives; in September, Bexar County commissioners approved a $1.5 million pilot program that would have mental health professionals respond to mental health calls instead of dispatching law enforcement officers. District Attorney Joe Gonzales also created a Civil Rights division within his office to exclusively handle police use-of-force cases.
Sheriff Javier Salazar said Wednesday that he did not see the CALM Approach as something that could prevent a situation like Daniels’ death, because the most significant part of the training was teaching safer physical restraints once someone is arrested.
“CALM is more [for] after the arrest is made, and we need to find a position to put this person in to catch their breath,” Salazar said. “The Damian Daniels case would not be a good litmus test for CALM. The George Floyd case would have been.”
Floyd, a Black man, was killed by a white Minneapolis police officer who knelt on his neck following an arrest in May. Floyd’s death sparked protests against racism and police brutality across the country. Salazar said he was thinking of Floyd’s death when he decided to have deputies trained in the CALM Approach.
“I can’t defend what they did to him that day, wouldn’t even attempt to try,” Salazar said of the officers involved in Floyd’s arrest. “But if had they been trained up and employed with something like [CALM], maybe George Floyd would have been alive today.”
The 100 Club of San Antonio, an organization that supports local law enforcement and firefighters, paid $10,000 for the inaugural CALM Approach training for 40 officers.
“As the very first law enforcement agency to take advantage of this training, they will be pioneers for this innovative approach to policing that we believe could be the basis for a national standard,” 100 Club of San Antonio President Richard Miller said in an Oct. 12 statement. “With continued support from our community, our goal is to help sponsor every member of law enforcement within the [San Antonio] area with this training.”
During Wednesday’s eight-hour training session, members of the sheriff’s department watched maskless and in close proximity to each other as three instructors demonstrated a way to restrain someone without blocking their ability to breathe. One person held the individual’s head while another grasped his waistband and pinned one leg down with his knee in what’s called a “lateral recovery restraint,” instructor Rick Smith told officers gathered around him.
“There is zero pressure on the back, zero pressure on the chest, zero pressure on the stomach, and zero pressure on the carotid arteries,” Smith said. “You can breathe completely normal from this position.”
Smith serves as president of Con10gency, a San Antonio-based public safety consulting company that provides training to law enforcement officials, emergency medical professionals, and firefighters. Smith, a former United States Marine and San Antonio Police Department officer, said he worked with a team of law enforcement officers, physicians, and emergency medical technicians to develop the CALM Approach to give police officers tools to respond to those passively resisting.
“The methodology always underscores not using physical force,” Smith said. “However, in many cases, physical force is unavoidable. When physical force is unavoidable, we give them a clear path to non-impact control techniques and help bring them under control to reduce injury to people.”
But when a weapon is introduced to a situation, the dynamics change, Smith said.
“When someone is armed with a weapon, that would be a different response,” he said. “We can’t sit there and try to talk to somebody if the officer is in danger or if someone is attacking the officer when the officer has to defend themselves. … If you pull a gun on a policeman, we don’t think communication is the proper thing to do. Officers should defend themselves and the public the best way they can.”
Even though Daniels did not point his gun at sheriff’s deputies, the presence of one in his possession posed a danger to officers, Smith explained. He demonstrated his thought process by walking through an example where he declared himself an armed individual and formed a gun with his forefinger and thumb and kept his arm to his side. He asked a reporter, acting as the police officer, to point a finger gun at him. Smith told the reporter to shoot him when a threat was perceived. In every scenario, Smith, the suspect, fired before the police officer.
“See my point? I wasn’t pointing my gun at you. I was pointing my gun down,” Smith said. “Action always beats reaction, and officers know that. When a person has a weapon and officers are what we call ‘danger close,’ they have to resort to their use-of-force continuum to mitigate that threat.”
The use-of-force continuum refers to the series of escalating responses that police officers employ, starting with simply being present at a situation and ending with lethal force.
Salazar said the exercise Smith employed was a typical one used in law enforcement training to show deputies how quickly they can be shot.
“You’ve got to have your head on a swivel, because if somebody decides to do something bad to you, you got a split second to react or else bad things are going to happen to you,” Salazar said.
Smith also walked officers through de-escalation techniques and ways to identify mental health crises when trying to bring individuals into custody. People operating under delusions must be handled carefully, Smith stressed. He emphasized having longer conversations with people who might be suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, acknowledging their delusions but also using distractions to focus their attention on the present.
“You need to talk to the person to bring them into custody,” he said.
Salazar also said officers are already trained in de-escalation techniques, but learning more is always helpful.
“If you can successfully de-escalate a situation where you don’t have to get to the restraining part, then we win that one,” he said. “We didn’t have to use force because you de-escalated it successfully.”
The CALM Approach aims to equip officers with skills to avoid physical conflict but also stay on top of fast-changing situations, Smith said.
“We inject humor,” he said. “We inject stories. We have tough conversations. Some of those conversations are introspective in that we need to look at ourselves. Law enforcement has evolved.”
Smith reiterated throughout the day that the CALM Approach endeavored to protect everyone – the person being detained, the police officer, and the public. It also provided training and a methodology that he did not learn as a police officer, he added. After seeing media reports on police use-of-force incidents around the country, Smith said he realized he would not have done anything differently based on his previous training.
“Law enforcement evolves, and I think it had not evolved quick enough when it came to some of these topics,” Smith said. “That’s when we said, ‘Can we contribute something to the conversation?’
“The cool thing about the CALM Approach is it protects everybody, it protects people on both sides of the conversation. It protects the public because it gives officers a clear path to de-escalate, to avoid physical confrontation. But also, when physical confrontation is inevitable, it teaches them to gain control while reducing injury and putting them in a great recovery position. But [CALM] also protects officers because it still allows officers to use reasonable force to protect themselves but give them valid tools to protect the public. No officer wants to go to work and hurt people.”
CALM might also serve other purposes. When one of the listening deputies hypothesized that the CALM Approach could function to improve public perception of law enforcement, CALM instructor Pete Hardy interjected.
“It’s not for the public. It’s to keep your ass out of trouble,” he said. “It is to find a system that will back you up in court, that you did something absolutely correct, medically sound. If a shift goes bad, you now have a team and medical research that says everything went well and everything was done right.”