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Former Actor and Hostage Negotiator Ray Hassett Training Police In De-escalation

Courtesy of New Haven Independent
Former actor, retired police officer and police de-escalation trainer Ray Hassett

A former Connecticut police officer is teaching police departments around the world how to defuse tense situations like standoffs and shootings. He tells them it’s all in how police are trained to deal with the public.

WSHU’s Davis Dunavin recently sat down with Ray Hassett to talk about his technique, which is based, in part, on his experience as an actor. Below is a transcript of their conversation:

DUNAVIN: You’ve probably seen Ray Hassett in movies. He’d usually play the gruff military guy or the tough-looking cop. Small parts, mostly, but some big movies. In Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, when Han Solo goes out looking for Luke on the ice planet Hoth, he’s the guy who says:

“Your tauntaun will freeze before you reach the first marker!” “Then I’ll see you in hell!

HASSETT: Acting is about connecting with people. When you are doing another scene with another actor, who you’ve never met as a person, you’ve got to find some connections to make that scene work. As you become a better actor, you become a better listener. You begin to understand emotion. And more relevantly, how you will behave in a crisis.

After his career as an actor, Hassett joined the New Haven Police Department, first as a patrol cop, then as a hostage negotiator. And he found those same listening skills came in handy – even though the life of a cop on the streets is a far cry from Hollywood.

HASSETT: You’re dealing with people at the worst moments of their lives, you’re dealing with violence, you’re dealing with mental illness, you’re dealing with drugs, you’re dealing with people who like the police, don’t like the police. When you’re improvving on the stage, you may not get the review you’re looking for or the chemistry you’re looking for. When you’re working real life, real time, when you make a mistake, you lose your life.

DUNAVIN: And now you bring those skills to other officers. What are the basic things you bring forth first, you want to stick in their mind the most?

HASSETT: What I want to do is train them to do something that none of us are trained to do, talk less and listen more. We’re bred to talk. There’s an old police saying that a good street cop can talk a dog off a meat truck. De-escalation, listening to people, is not about talking anybody out of anything. It’s getting that dog to walk off that meat truck, on their own, and believe that was their own idea. You have got to connect with people exactly where they are. Right where they got off the bus, that’s where you begin your relationship.

DUNAVIN: And a lot of the time they’re in no mood to begin a relationship. You’re coming up to people when they’re worked up, they’re emotional, they’re upset, they’re angry.

HASSETT: They are all of the above. There’s no such thing as a routine contact with the public. I think back in the day, people were much more open to, when the police arrived, to accept their suggestion. Their direction. The image of policing has changed. The experience of the public has changed. People don’t always like us, sometimes they hate us.

In his trainings, Hassett shows bodycam footage from San Francisco showing an encounter in January between police and a man with paranoid schizophrenia.

“The hell’s your problem?” “I didn’t call you! I just put my garbage out! Get the *bleep* off my stair! Hey, don’t spit on me!

The standoff just escalates. At the end, police shoot and non-fatally injure the man.

HASSETT: What kind of emotion are you hearing from him? If he’s stuck on that one track, telling them to get off, and there’s not any reasonable, rational connection – in his case, he was not ready to connect. That’s a time to reset. Back it up, slow it down. If you’re just looking to solve the problem, you haven’t taken time to figure out what’s going on inside that person’s head. You haven’t taken time to build a relationship.

DUNAVIN: They don’t get a lot of this kind of training, right?

HASSETT: No, they don’t. Traditionally, we train young police officers to be warriors. We don’t train them to be diplomats. Tactical diplomats.

DUNAVIN: Have you seen cases in which this has just turned around the relationship between police and a community?

HASSETT: Absolutely. People remember every contact with a police officer. For many of us on the job we have so many contacts with the public that we forget. The public does not forget. If you leave me better than you found me, that’s what I remember.

DUNAVIN: And let’s talk now about some of the other areas, because you’re taking it outside of policing.

HASSETT: I’ve trained first responding clerks, complaint clerks. I’ve trained librarians. I’ve trained flagmen who stand in the highway and control traffic. They were never given the training on how to read emotion and how to de-escalate someone. Somebody comes in basically because they don’t like their light bill and they’re angry. And the clerk says, well, there’s a 1-800 number for ya, not taking into consideration that that person had to take a day off work, maybe were not feeling well, frustrated, had had previous bad experience. They’re not dealing with that emotion first. They’re dealing with the problem. Read the emotion.

Ray Hassett is a retired lieutenant with 25 years in the New Haven Police Department. His training is called “New Face of Law Enforcement.”

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.