Officer hailed for communication skills

from The Oregonian, by Maxine Bernstein

Portland Officer Dan Thompson this summer spent at least 30 minutes on a cell phone trying to coax a man armed with a gun out of a Southeast Portland house. The man was waving the firearm around, threatening his friends and holding it to his head.

Thompson, speaking from the street using a police car for cover, introduced himself, asked the man what was bothering him and assured him he was “here to help.” Thompson reminded the man that police were not going away, “so we’re going to have to find a solution to his problem.”

The man stepped out, only to see a flank of police cars surrounding his home and retreated inside.

“I go, ‘Darn it,’ ” Thompson recalled.

But the veteran cop didn’t give up, connecting once again by phone with the armed man, trying to regain his trust. “I do remember walking back and forth between the police cars, totally focused on this guy,” Thompson recalled.

The man eventually surrendered that June 6 evening and was unharmed. For his effective communication skills, Thompson on Monday was awarded the Chief’s Forum’s highest honor: the Nathan Thomas Memorial Award.

“It was Officer Thompson’s maturity, patience and keen de-escalation skills that made sure this call had a positive outcome,” said Louise Grant, the forum’s co-chairwoman.

Thompson, 56, a 31-year bureau member, doesn’t have special hostage negotiation training, but finds from his experience on the streets that “it seems like everybody hands me the phone.” He was shocked by the recognition, calling it probably the highlight of his career, which he says he’ll continue until he stops “having fun.”

“This award is extremely special to every member of the bureau because we all carry with us the day Nathan Thomas was killed,” Thompson said. “I’m humbled by it.”

The award is named for a 12-year-old boy who was accidentally shot and killed by police in January 1992 while being held hostage in his home by a burglar. Nathan’s mom, Martha McMurry, presented the award, noting that January will mark the 15th anniversary of Nathan’s death; he would have turned 27 on Dec. 19.

“I no longer know what he might have been doing or what he might have looked like,” McMurry said.

McMurry and Nathan’s father, Gregory Thomas, chose not to sue the Police Bureau. Instead, they pressed the bureau to enhance officers’ communication skills to de-escalate tense encounters and have the bureau recognize officers who exhibit this skill. Often, she said, she’s asked whether she and her husband took the right path, if their efforts have helped.

“Well” she said, “it’s very hard to answer that question.”

She said she’s pleased there has been the introduction of less-lethal weapons, such as bean-bag shotguns, and in the wake of James P. Chasse Jr.’s death in police custody, money set aside to ensure all officers complete 40 hours of crisis intervention training. But she said she recognizes that the training is not going to resolve every situation.

“Unfortunately, when things like that happen and people die and families love that person, we’re all sorry this happens and it hurts everybody,” McMurry said.

Nathan’s mom urged the Bureau to continue recognizing officers who use communication as a police tool to connect with people and avoid violent encounters.

“If we’re going to value community policing, we have to recognize communication, treating people with respect,” McMurry said. “It might help keep other families from living the tragedy we live with every day.”