Morgantown chief explains deescalation efforts

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Interim Police Chief Eric Powell is working to help Morgantown City Council members know how his officers deescalate situations and use crowd control measures.

Deescalation is the main tool for police on the street, according to Powell. Keeping the situation calm allows suspects to clearly explain their case and be understood while keeping witnesses calm so they can better remember details to provide details.

“If you can reach a mutual agreement at the beginning of any kind of interaction with someone we’re going to keep it as civil as we can,” Powell, a more than 20 year veteran said.

The recent conversation with council comes following a number of peaceful protests in Morgantown. Council has also taken a step toward forming a committee look at police-race relations.

Morgantown, with a major university in city limits has had demonstrations, protests and celebrations that become unruly dating back to the 1970s.

“They all present different challenges and we have to measure our response to get the best results in every situation,” Powell said.

Recent protests have been peaceful, with tense moments when streets are blocked to traffic. Also, these protests can be organized very quickly via social media allowing police very little time to plan or prepare.

“Our purpose in gatherings is to get people to disperse if it’s causing problems,” Powell said. “Or if we feel there’s a possibility it could escalate and cause problems.”

When deescalation fails Powell says officers will attempt to gain compliance from group. If the group continues to refuse lawful requests police will repeat the request, cite the law or code. When that fails, police will explain to the crowd the next action police will take to gain compliance.

If the situation becomes unsafe for officers, the public or public property officers have other tools to gain compliance. Powell says they have pepper balls delivered with an air gun, smoke, tear gas and a long-range acoustic device.

“The health of the officer is a concern, the health of the protesters is a concern, and the health of the bystanders not involved in the protest is a concern,” Powell said. “Those are all things we have to take into consideration.”

The organic Morgantown population doubles during the WVU school year making it difficult to fully implement community policing practices. Despite that, Powell said he and his department are committing to meeting resident where they live and work.

“We have officers that participate in neighborhood association meetings and we have some very good downtown beat officers that are really good at establishing relationships with the business owners and giving us feedback on what the general mood is,” he said.

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