More people were killed by police across the United States last year than in any other year in the past decade, according to a Mapping Police Violence report. But that wasn’t the fate of Joseph M. Hurley, who allegedly shot his wife in the head, neck, back, and hands before shooting four rounds toward officers who rushed to help her. His arrest, following a two-hour standoff with multiple law enforcement agencies, shows what’s possible for successfully de-escalating dangerous situations, experts say, and the importance of slowing things down.
“The last thing we want, whether it be as a SWAT operator or as a police officer, is to use lethal force,” said Scott Nix, control chief of the Northeastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council SWAT team, who was at the scene during the Danvers standoff Monday.
Whether police are able to successfully de-escalate a volatile situation or not depends on a variety of factors, experts say, including how the suspect is armed, how much they are resisting, and how persuasive the police negotiator can be, not to mention the factor of race — people of color and Black people in particular are killed by police at disproportionate rates, the subject of widespread protests in 2020.
In the Danvers case, officers responded to a 911 call from a woman who said she had been shot multiple times and fled to a neighbor’s home, according to local authorities. When officers arrived, they were met with gunfire from the trailer where Hurley, who is white, remained until reinforcements from the State Police and SWAT took him into custody.
Hurley remains at a North Shore hospital, facing charges of armed assault with intent to murder, three counts of assault with a dangerous weapon, and illegal possession of firearms. His wife is being treated at an undisclosed Boston hospital, where she is in a critical but stable condition, according to the district attorney’s office.
Nix said his team “really assessed things and didn’t rush” to de-escalate the confrontation with Hurley, who had a wound on his chest that had apparently been self-inflicted, according to the district attorney’s office. A neighbor, who told the Globe he had driven Hurley to medical appointments in the past, suggested he was struggling mentally.
Nix said Woburn police deployed a drone that allowed responding units to gain real-time intelligence on what Hurley was doing inside the trailer and how to best proceed with the de-escalation without putting officers at risk.
Including mental health professionals in a crisis response could mitigate extreme use of force, said Laura Sanford, deputy chief counsel for the Committee for Public Counsel Services’ Mental Health Litigation Division.
“We need more multidisciplinary approaches because it makes a huge difference,” she said.
Some Massachusetts departments have already embraced this strategy in an effort to combat fatal police shootings. Somerville Police Department has extensive crisis intervention training that’s mandated for officers and also has an in-house team of clinicians ready to assist officers on calls, according to Lieutenant Carmine Vivolo.
“We try to teach officers how to slow things down and find the root of problem,” said Vivolo, who leads Somerville Police Department’s de-escalation training.
“You need time, distance, and space to hopefully have a good outcome,” said Terrence Cunningham, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. He said effective de-escalation is all about straying away from the mindset that an altercation needs to end immediately.
But Jamarhl Crawford, a longtime local police reform advocate, said he wasn’t surprised police managed to arrest a suspect without killing him in a whiter, more suburban town like Danvers.
“Everything is different when color comes in,” Crawford said, addressing racial disparities.
A report from Mapping Police Violence found 100 people were killed nationwide after police responded to reports of someone having a mental health crisis in 2023 alone. These killings often disproportionally affect people of color, with Black people comprising 6.1 percent of the US population, but 24.9 percent of all people killed by police. Globe investigations in 2016 and 2023 found that many people shot by officers in recent years were suicidal or mentally ill.
Crawford, who served on the Boston Police Reform Task Force in 2020, said de-escalation is important, but it’s even more essential for departments to evaluate how measures of justice are implemented to help prevent officers from stepping out of line in the future.
“Officers need to be held to a standard of swift and sure justice,” he said.
In 2023, 20-year-old Bangladeshi UMass Boston student Sayed Faisal was shot and killed by police after he jumped out of an apartment window with a knife witnesses said he was using to cut himself, according to police.
After police discharged a “less-than-lethal sponge round” to attempt to stop Faisal, whom they were chasing through the streets, an officer shot him with a firearm. He later died in the hospital.
Faisal’s killing sparked an outcry from hundreds of protesters who demanded a thorough investigation of what went wrong in the police intervention. In October, a judge ruled the shooting did not constitute a criminal act.
“A normal police interaction on the road is frightening for anyone, [and I] can’t imagine what it’s like for people who are being pursued or restrained by police, especially people of color,” said Sanford, who has represented clients who have underlying mental health issues.
Sanford said the increased use of what’s known as a “co-responder” model, which involves clinicians joining forces with police officers to respond to incidents, can help prevent tragedies like Faisal’s in the future.
Training officers to become better equipped to handle altercations with people who are undergoing a mental health crisis is also essential for future change, Vivolo said.
“The more officers we train, the more [deaths] we prevent,” he said.
He said 90 percent of his Somerville department has completed a 40-hour crisis intervention team training, which has been brought to many other Massachusetts departments. They also have clinicians who work directly with officers and are dispatched to scenes where mental health intervention is expected.
“It needs to become more widespread that there are other ways to calm people down than restraining or shooting them,” Sanford said.