Wayne State University’s Police Chief on the Case for De-escalation

With police under fire, Anthony Holt sees an opportunity for a needed rethink
anthony holt wayne state university police chief
Wayne State University police Chief Anthony Holt

“No one likes the police right now,” Wayne State University police Chief Anthony Holt concedes. “It’s a natural reaction. Black or white, they just don’t like us now.” For a man who has spent more than 40 years in law enforcement at WSU, the last 12 as chief, that reality has got to bite, especially since under Holt’s leadership, Wayne State has been ranked as one of the safest campuses in America by online researchers at bestcolleges.com. And 85 percent of the duties his officers perform take place just off campus in the surrounding Midtown district.

His style is both involved and innovative. He originated CompStat, a bimonthly meeting at Wayne State of law enforcement representatives from across southeast Michigan to compare statistics and best practices. And in May, the department established the headquarters of the National De-escalation Training Center on the Wayne State campus. The intensive program is designed to use personality assessment to take police training to the next level.

Hour Detroit: How have these past few months been for you and your department?

Chief Anthony Holt: It’s been quite an ordeal. We had to deal with COVID-19, which really changed how we do business in terms of reacting to people. I had nine officers come down with the virus. And then that horrific incident in Minneapolis [the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police] that’s probably going to change the whole culture of law enforcement. And it might be a needed culture change, where we’ve all got to look deep within our operations. Really, when you talk about community policing, this time you’ve got to take a deep dive into it.

Seems like the launch of your National De-escalation Training Center couldn’t be more timely.

I was approached about this two years ago by a professor out of Florida, Dr. Patrick Guarnieri, who had been training de-escalation and insider threat with the Defense Department and some corporations and was ready to bring it to law enforcement. Being a major police department inside a major research university, he thought this would be a great place to start. It’s not a “one size fits all.” In the first section, the officer receives a psychological personality test to tell him or her what kind of personality they are, how they respond to situations. We think this training will take off, and we want it to be standardized. We’ll be the hub for a series of regional training centers across the country.

The situation in Atlanta with the killing of Rayshard Brooks appeared to be a case study for de-escalation, and that situation couldn’t have ended worse.

I know. I’ve gotten a lot of questions about that, and I need to see everything from beginning to end. But we have a McDonald’s right here on Woodward, and we get calls about guys falling asleep behind the wheel. We might ask him to move his car if he’s in the drive-thru. If he appears to be intoxicated, we might say, “We saw you sitting in the car, not driving the car, but I can’t let you drive. Can you get someone to pick you up? Or I can take you to our station, not arrest you, and you can wait until someone comes for you.” That’s how I would de-escalate. Now, I’ll probably get a lot of criticism from other officers, but if they had a struggle, and he [Brooks] took a Taser and ran, you knew who he was. You had his car. I’m going to run to his house and be sitting on the front porch when he gets there.

When you hear the call to “defund the police,” what does that mean to you?

I don’t think they’re saying, “No more police.” They want community oversight of the police. They want changes in culturally how we do business. Everybody is trying to reinvent us right now. Some of the sweeping changes they’re asking for, in terms of domestic violence or dealing with the homeless, maybe it shouldn’t be the police. I started a pilot project where we had a social worker ride on patrol with our officers, because in some situations we’re automatically the enemy. So the social worker would do the talking. We were there just to make sure it didn’t go south, she didn’t get attacked, or anything like that. You might help one in 10, but that one is in a better situation. This movement right now, I think, is going to be sustained for a while, as long as there are no arguments between the groups or it becomes more aggressive. I hope that doesn’t happen.

All the talk right now is of police shootings of civilians, but your police squad has suffered loss: Wayne State University police officer Collin Rose was shot and killed in November 2016. What impact did that have on your department?

We use a little more caution now. That was the first loss we ever experienced, and the person who killed him was judged not competent to stand trial. I think what helped the department get through it was the show of support we received on Collin’s behalf. Even Detroit officers, who have lost colleagues in the line of duty, told us they had never seen anything like it. He became like a billboard, the Facebook image for police officers. They named a dog park after him. Do you know contributions still come in? We have homeless people come in and say, “This is $5 for the Collin Rose Fund.” I’ll take their $5, then give them $10 to get something to eat.