'I care about you': Virginia Beach Police sergeant explains de-escalation technique during mental health call

Sgt Christopher Washington.png
Posted at 5:48 PM, Jul 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-28 22:11:01-04

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - It's late on June 29, 2021, when Virginia Beach Police are called to help a man having a mental health crisis.

"He was emotional. He was upset; I could feel his hurt," said Sgt. Christopher Washington. "And at the time, he was actually threatening the officers. [He] said he was going to commit suicide by cop. [When I arrived on scene after talking to him on the phone] I was walking through what my options were... what you don't know is there was a hatchet on the ground, so there was a possibility that he could have done something with that."

One month later, and Sgt. Washington is still emotionally reliving the moment. He sat down with News 3 reporter Erin Miller to re-watch the body camera footage and explain what his thought process was.

"The hardest part of these is the other side - you never know if they’re receiving it, if they're able to receive it, but like I said, it confirmed what I felt: This brother wanted help," said Sgt. Washington. "That's one of the reasons I chose to step into this role because, wow, I'm going to be the one to help them."

His actions to de-escalate were the reason everyone went home safely that night.

In the body-worn camera footage, you can hear Sgt. Washington say, "My guys are not going to rough you up as long as you do, and continue to do, what we ask you to do. I love how you are processing right now with me."

Sgt. Washington asked the man to empathize with him and his officers. The 13-year veteran of the force explained what he was doing and what his actions were going to be, at one point saying, "We are going to have to put handcuffs on you, but for two reasons: To make sure you don’t go crazy on yourself and to make sure my officers feel safe."

At that point, the man seemed to understand and agree with the potential actions.

Sgt. Washington credits his demeanor to the push on crisis intervention training (CIT), learning from mistakes made in the department's past.

"I wouldn't have known those indicators; I wouldn't have known how the effects of the officer and the dogs - even knowing him knowing if his statements created certain reactions, in the community in general. So, that's where that training comes in - checking the temperature of these things and how is that having an effect positively or negatively in the encounter."

In this case, officers were on scene for almost an hour before connecting with the man, getting him the help he needed.

"We're looking for distance; we're looking for a cover if we can find it, and when we have distance and when we have cover that gives us time. And when we have time, we can communicate," said Virginia Beach Police Chief Paul Neudigate. "It is the buzzword that’s out there: 'De-escalation.' The police have been doing that for a long, long time. Let's show them what occurs in Virginia Beach on a daily basis."

Sgt. Washington said it's not uncommon for officers to respond to four to five mental health checks a night.

"Many times more times than not, we have successful outcomes that you never hear about," said Sgt. Washington. "Every situation is going to be different. Every officer is going to be different. Every person that we interact with is going to be different."

The overarching message that the newly appointed sergeant is bringing to the first precinct is that, "I care about you. My goal when I come out here is not to lose anybody."