Program trains police to defuse confrontations with troubled veterans
November 5, 2014
Last in a four-part series.
LAS VEGAS — Clouds of smoke plumed from the spinning wheels of a white Cadillac pinned between two Las Vegas police cars. Officers had ordered the driver to exit the vehicle, and when he failed to comply, they devised a plan to flush him out. One officer would fire a beanbag round to shatter the car’s rear window. Another would then shoot a canister of pepper spray.
A witness filmed the standoff in the parking lot of an apartment complex in the early hours of Dec. 12, 2011. The video shows the plan mutate into a killing.
The beanbag round was fired. Less than a second later, before the pepper spray could be shot, a third officer blasted seven rounds from his assault rifle into the Cadillac.
The car’s wheels stopped, the smoke dissipated. Four bullets had hit the driver. He was unarmed.
Stanley Gibson, a 43-year-old Army veteran, served in the Persian Gulf War two decades earlier and remained besieged by post-traumatic stress disorder. He carried home memories of picking up charred corpses along the so-called Highway of Death, where U.S. forces bombed Iraqi troops retreating from Kuwait near the war’s end in 1991.
Gibson’s paranoia and depression had deepened in the weeks before his death. Records show he had run out of anti-anxiety medication days earlier, after a Veterans Affairs clinician canceled an appointment that would have enabled him to obtain a refill. His behavior in his final hours revealed a man astray in his own mind, unmoored from the world around him.
His death was preventable for several reasons, and three years later, in part because of what happened to him, 30 officers sat in a training course on de-escalation strategies for veterans with combat trauma.
Gibson’s name went unspoken during the two-day program this past summer at the headquarters of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. But the fallout from his shooting has influenced reforms to the agency’s deadly force policies and its tactics for handling veterans in crisis.
“There were so many things with Mr. Gibson that, if the cards had fallen a different way, he would be alive,” Deputy Chief Gary Schofield said. “It was a tragic situation, and so you want to learn from that.”
The killing of Gibson mirrors the fate of veterans involved in a string of police standoffs in recent years. Most of them suffered from mental disorders linked to their service, including Gibson and former Army Sgt. Issac Sims, 26, an Iraq War veteran gunned down in May by officers in Kansas City, Mo.
An ongoing federal review of hospitals run by the Department of Veterans Affairs has exposed chronic delays endured by patients seeking primary, mental health and specialty care. The problems coincide with rising demand for services at the VA’s nearly 1,000 hospitals and clinics nationwide. The need for behavioral health treatment has spiked, with some 1.3 million veterans receiving care in 2012, an increase of almost 400,000 from 2006.
Gibson, like Sims, faced delays in his VA treatment near the end of his life. Struggling with PTSD, he soon wound up in a fatal standoff with law enforcement, one he may have been too confused to comprehend.
The recurrence of that pattern across the country has prodded more police agencies to train officers in defusing confrontations with troubled veterans. In Las Vegas, mindful of Gibson’s death, Schofield advocates an approach that could be described as vigilant patience.
“It’s a matter of our people understanding that ‘I need to make an arrest’ isn’t always the answer,” he said. “The first and foremost thing you’ve got to do with a veteran is listen and, when it’s possible, try to slow things down.”
A slow, difficult process
Gibron Smith wondered if he had seen behavior caused by post-traumatic stress disorder without recognizing the symptoms. In a six-month span in 2012, the Las Vegas patrolman responded to three calls from casinos about a drunk, belligerent patron.
The incidents involved three different men. Each had served in Iraq or Afghanistan, and each displayed a blend of high-volume patriotism and obstinance.
“They would keep saying stuff like, ‘I’m an American! I served my country!’ When I tried to get them to do what I asked, I really had a hard time reaching them,” Smith said. After their anger subsided, the men turned distraught, yet even on the ride to jail they refused to divulge what bothered them. “It was like there was a wall between us.”
Smith talked during a break during the department’s de-escalation training that taught officers about the effects of traumatic brain injuries and PTSD. The course, organized by the Upper Midwest Community Policing Institute, prodded Smith to reconsider the conduct of the three men.
“I’m learning that the way veterans deal with what they’ve experienced is more complicated than I realized,” he said. “It might be that you have to talk with them for hours to get at what they’re feeling.”
The community policing institute, a nonprofit based outside Minneapolis, Minn., has held the training for more than two dozen police agencies since 2011. A previous session in Las Vegas took place on Dec. 11, 2012, one day shy of the one-year mark that patrolman Jesus Arevalo killed Gibson.
The program receives funding from the office of Community Orienting Policing Services, or COPS, an agency within the Department of Justice. Two years ago, Las Vegas police officials engaged in a collaboration with the COPS office to reform the department’s deadly-force policies. The effort arose after Metro officers killed 12 people in 2011, a single-year high for the agency capped by Gibson’s death.
The instructors of the de-escalation course, most of whom are retired law enforcement personnel, acquaint officers with behaviors linked to combat trauma and possible explanations behind them. A veteran experiencing a flashback might veer from lane to lane while driving to evade an imaginary suicide car bomber, or “patrol” his property while wearing body armor and carrying a firearm.
Educating police that the actions of a veteran in crisis may suggest habits of survival rather than intent to harm can help officers to recalibrate their responses and potentially avoid using force. Standing before the Las Vegas group, Bill Micklus, a former longtime police officer in Minnesota, discussed the importance of talking — and, more so, of listening — when faced with an agitated veteran.
“Let’s do everything we can not to take them on in that moment,” he said. Projected on a white screen behind him was a list of points to bear in mind in such scenarios, among them “Anticipate a slow and difficult process” and “Open lines of communication.”
“We’ve got the skills, we’ve got the equipment, but they have some of that training and skill set, too,” he said. “Maybe it would make sense for us to keep it in our strength area. That would be verbal de-escalation.”
The instructors at once cultivate awareness that combat changes a person and deflate the misperception of veterans as ticking time bombs. “I don’t want you coming out of this class thinking people are screwed up just because they went to war,” said John Baker, a former Marine, who works as a defense attorney in Minneapolis and represents former servicemembers.
Emphasizing that most veterans do not suffer from combat trauma, he added, “It’s important to remember PTSD is treatable and that the large majority of people who have it do recover.”
The course provides a kind of cultural sensitivity training, bridging the divide between the military and civilian worlds that exists within law enforcement despite the surface similarities of weapons, uniforms and ranks. The vastness of the divide surprised Sam Bonner when he joined Metro in 2009, three years after deploying to Iraq with the Army.
Now a major in the Army National Guard, he recalled an incident from his first year with the department. A Metro sergeant, aware of Bonner’s military experience, called him to a scene where several officers, clutching Tasers and guns, had set up a perimeter around a veteran standing in his garage.
The man had begun shouting angrily around midnight at no one in particular, alarming his neighbors. None of the officers had attempted to approach him to talk. Observing that the man was unarmed, Bonner walked up to him and soon found out he had grown tired and simply wanted to go to bed. Fifteen minutes later, he went back inside his home and the officers left.
“There’s a problem with the word ‘veteran’ having kind of a stigma with cops,” Bonner said. “You do have to be careful with veterans because they have the training and know-how to do damage. But most of the time what it comes down to is listening. If you give them the time and space to wind down, a lot of problems can be solved without force.”
The militarization of law enforcement has gained national attention since August, when protests erupted after a police officer shot and killed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
Billions of dollars in surplus military equipment — armored trucks, machine guns, grenade launchers — has flowed to local and state police agencies nationwide under a federal program established in 1997. (A Department of Defense report shows that agencies in Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, have received 60 assault rifles and 21 night-vision devices since 2006.)
Some police officials justify the equipment as a reaction to the advanced weapons and tactical training of combat veterans. A sheriff’s sergeant in Indiana recently told a TV reporter that returning troops “have the ability and knowledge to build IEDs” — improvised explosive devices — “and to defeat law enforcement techniques.”
At the same time, a reflexively aggressive approach to standoffs with veterans in crisis may provoke violence rather than deter it. Tossing a stun grenade into a home where a veteran has barricaded himself, perhaps believing he’s back at war and under siege by the enemy, can intensify the delusion.
Schofield, the deputy chief, cautions against using force as a first resort. “If you’re running around and harming or killing people, we’re not going to have a conversation. We’re going to stop the action,” he said. “But if you drop the weapon, or there’s no weapon to begin with, that’s when the dynamic changes. You have to learn how to talk with people.”
Three years ago, during the standoff with Stanley Gibson, a breakdown in communication among officers, compounded by a radio glitch, contributed to his death. Unaware that the plan to flush Gibson out of his car was underway, Arevalo, the officer who killed him, apparently mistook the beanbag round fired at the Cadillac as a gunshot coming from within the vehicle. (Arevalo was placed on administrative leave and later fired.)
Before the shooting occurred, however, officers spent barely an hour attempting to persuade the unarmed Gibson to surrender, even as he posed little threat with his vehicle pinned by two squad cars. “His death was a catastrophic failure all the way through,” Patrick Burke said.
Burke, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2011 as an Army reservist, belongs to the Office of Internal Oversight, a division created as part of Metro’s internal reforms. He regards Gibson’s shooting as the culmination of a string of mistakes that began with delays in his VA care. Nonetheless, with greater patience, the officers at the scene could have averted the violent outcome.
“There has been positive change because of what happened,” he said. “We’re not perfect. But hopefully, with a bit of luck and a lot of training and a lot of compassion, that won’t happen again.”
‘I still feel lost’
Las Vegas police were involved in a total of 24 shootings in 2012 and 2013, compared to 25 in 2010 alone, a one-year record for the department. Still, for those who knew Gibson, the efforts to change Metro’s deadly-force policies offer cold comfort.
His longtime friend Bill Hill keeps the white Cadillac in his driveway. Bullet holes pock the doors and interior. A faded brown stain splays across the driver’s seat headrest. “I feel like he was slaughtered,” Hill said.
The lone occasion that Rondha Gibson, Stanley’s widow, visited Hill’s home to look at the car, she broke down and turned away. Last year, the police department paid her a $1.5 million settlement. (The agency paid his mother $500,000 earlier this year.)
The money has done nothing to salve Rondha’s emotional wounds. “I still feel lost,” she said. “I feel exactly the same way as the day it happened.” The black leather jacket that her husband wore at the time of his death hangs on a wall in her Las Vegas home. The front is frayed from bullets. “They took my heart.”
Steve Sanson, a friend of Rondha Gibson’s and the director of the nonprofit advocacy group Veterans in Politics, criticized Metro’s reforms as “cosmetic.” He referred to an officer’s wounding of an unarmed man late last year in a shooting outside a convenience store; the man has sued the department.
“What needs to be changed is the mindset of the cops,” Sanson said. “I understand that there are times that you need to use deadly force. But if somebody’s unarmed, why are you shooting them?”
Sanson, who served six-year stints in the Army and the Marines before retiring from the military in 1998, lamented what he referred to as a “war on veterans” in America. “The craziest part is how these vets escaped death on a daily basis in the war zone,” he said, “and then they came home to the country they were defending and got killed by somebody who’s supposed to serve and protect them.”
Schofield recognizes that words will never heal the lingering anger of Gibson’s family and friends. For Metro’s officers, he wants the memory of the shooting to endure as motivation to better understand veterans in crisis.
“I doubt that anybody got up that morning, put on their uniform and said, ‘I want to be involved in a critical incident that results in a veteran sitting inside his car getting shot to death,’ ” he said.
“But the fact is, he was shot. That’s a lesson that shouldn’t be forgotten. We owe that to our veterans.”