Season 1, Episode 1 - WSUPD Chief Holt on de-escalation, community policing - Today@Wayne podcast

Police Department chief Anthony Holt

In its inaugural show, the Today@Wayne Podcast welcomes Wayne State University Police Department chief Anthony Holt. Widely respected for his progressive approach to law enforcement, Holt talks with host Darrell Dawsey about the critical importance of community policing and explains why WSUPD has become a leader in de-escalation training. 

A career law enforcement officer, Chief Anthony Holt has earned notice since become chief of WSUPD for his deep commitment to community policing and law enforcement accountability. Holt helped WSU establish itself as a leader in de-escalation training and recently opened the headquarters of the National De-Escalation Training Center on Wayne State's campus.


Anthony Holt, current WSU Chief of Police, has held several positions within the university's police department since he joined the force as a police officer in 1977. He rose through the ranks to sergeant, lieutenant, captain and now chief during a career spanning more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Wayne State University Criminal Justice Program. 

Additional Resources

Learn about the National De-Escalation Training Center.

Read more of Chief Holt's thoughts about community policing, de-escalation and the future of law enforcement. 


ANNOUNCER: Welcome to Today at Wayne, a podcast that engages and informs the Wayne State University campus community. With news, announcements, information, and current event discussions relevant to the university's goals and mission, Today at Wayne serves as the perfect forum for our campus to begin a conversation or keep one going. Thanks for joining us.

DARRELL DAWSEY: Welcome to the inaugural podcast for the Today at Wayne Podcast, an inaugural episode. I'm your host, Darrell Dawsey. With this podcast, we'll be bringing you interviews with the administrators, faculty, staff, students, and community members, who make Wayne State University the vibrant and engaging research institution that it is, and we look forward to having you join us on this chat. Our guest today is WSUPD Chief Anthony Holt, who, along with his work keeping the campus secure, has become one of the most forceful and vital voices in the country for police reform and the advancement of both community policing and deescalation strategies. In fact, on his watch, Wayne State has become the national and regional headquarters for the National Deescalation Training Center, whose central mission is to reduce conflict and avoid potential tragic scenarios for citizens and officers.

And we're very excited to have him. Welcome, Chief Holt.

CHIEF ANTHONY HOLT: Thank you. Pleasure to be here.

DAWSEY: Always good to talk with you. Let's just jump right into it. Just tell us a little bit about some of the great work that has been coming out of the National Deescalation Training Center. I want to start right there because we've had an entire summer last summer full of a lot of protest, a lot of outrage, over some very tragic incidents involving folks like George Floyd, and Mr. Blake there in Kenosha, and so you know, you and some other folks around the country have kind of taken this issue by the horns, and I know it's a thorny issue, so I just want to give you an opportunity to talk a little bit about the deescalation training center and how that kind of fits in with your broader commitment to community policing and to deescalation.

HOLT: That's an excellent question. As you know, George Floyd was a defining moment in the country, and it's going to be a defining moment in police work. When you hear all the protests on the law enforcers, and they talk about defunding the police, and I'm looking at it as saying, "We have to define the police." We have to define how we respond to the community, how we respond to conflict, and how we do this as a partnership. I looked at all of this. It was actually a year ago that this concept of deescalation was brought to me, and I said, "Well, let me get an understanding of what this is."

There's sorts of training out there, verbal judo. You let the person talk. You get all this two-hour training. But how much substance was really to it? And then this system was brought to me of deescalation, and it goes by personality traits, and issues where you have this training, and within really one day, you get this training where you could divide the type of issues that you're responding to into different personality traits, and it's very scientific and it's very patterned, personality traits. You could see if the person has mental health issues. You could see if it's just a general aggravation. And you'll be able to look to this person and react to this person, that says, "Okay, this is the methodology that I need to use to deescalate this situation here."

"Do we back off, come back later? Do we approach this person in a different manner?" And we have four categories within which you can define a type of encounter that we're walking into, and these four categories have subcategories which gives us an understanding of this person and what type of methodology we need to use to deescalate. The whole idea is to really avoid a use of force continually.


HOLT: That's what we don't want to do. We could look at this person's personality, there may be four officers that respond, we may say, "Let's back up. Only one person needs to talk right now to this person here." And it's really a three day training. The first two days are understanding and learning the concept of the person that you're going to encounter, what type of personality he is subtitled under, and what techniques you use under their personality conflict to deescalate. And then after you go over this first two days, the last day is scenario based, where we actually walk you through a lot of different scenarios. We're putting the officer to test, and we've got to have a MILO system where it's a 360 video screen here.

Most people use the MILO for shoot, don't shoot, scenarios, where you walk through a hallway. We're not doing that. We're doing this MILO for deescalation training, where we could build the scenarios into this, or we could stop it and say, "No, this is what's going on." We got to expose the person to all types of scenarios. What is different about this is we've got to bring the community into this.

DAWSEY: How so?

HOLT: We're going to bring them in and be part of the scenario base.

DAWSEY: Oh, wow. Okay.

HOLT: They're going to see us and they're going to say, "No, when the police interact with me, this is what they do." And say, "Okay, so we've got to put this in the training." And we want that input. Does this make the encounter better, or does it worse?

DAWSEY: Wow. That's a pretty-

HOLT: And we have to be careful, because a lot of community members will say, "The best encounter is for you to not come at all." You know, we have to get really to the fact. Now, if somebody called us, we have to respond to that. We want your help in showing us how to respond in the best way.

DAWSEY: I got you, I got you.

HOLT: This is going, we're going to be the headquarters, and from this headquarters we're going to have regional training centers because somebody in the west coast is not going to come here for the training. It's too expensive for them to travel. We're going to have regional centers set up. Florida, North Carolina, Texas, Las Vegas. And we're going to be the headquarters here, but the methods and the standards are going to be the same.

DAWSEY: Now, who are some of the agencies, what are some of the agencies so far, that have been a part of this? Maybe that have taken some trainings, or to help train.

HOLT: Well, right now, North Carolina's going to sign up. Florida is. Texas is. And we're working on Las Vegas right now. This would've been fully operational, but then we had the pandemic, the COVID-19. We have to follow that protocol. It's not an online training where you sit in the classroom and you're taking this online, you can take a break, come back in two hours. This is not that type of training. This is intense, hands-on training, and with the COVID-19 protocol, we couldn't continue that type of training. For example, my department, I have half the officers trained, and the other half haven't been trained because of the COVID.

We stopped in February and we're going to start up again in September. I have already had inquiries from South Hill Police, Wayne County Community College Police. You know, police agencies is a little different, because they get so many people bombarding them with training, and some of the training is for the vendors to make money, and they want to see this work. They want to see if it's effective, and this is what we got to bring to it.

DAWSEY: Well, the stakes are high. We certainly know that we certainly do need an improvement in terms of relations between the community, particularly the African American community, all over the country, certainly not just here in Detroit, so it's wonderful that you're doing that. And this seems to fit in with just an overall pattern that you've sort of exhibited, in terms of your desire to try and improve, just generally speaking, police-community relations. You've been also a big proponent of community policing. I was wondering if you could just talk a little bit about your vision for community policing. What does it mean to you and how have you been able to help kind of think about that, with the definition?

HOLT: Well, see, I think the key is it has to be more than a soundbite. It has to be more where the police put community policing on their vehicles with a website where to contact them. Everything has to be driven from the top. If it's not driven from the top, it's not going to work. That means that in my department I have to drive it, that the university's involved, the president has to be in line and driving it, and the board of governors have to be in line. But once it's driven from the top, the key element, the only way it works, if you get buy in from the community.

When your officers have to buy in, and because it's driven from the top, they sort of have to buy in if they want to continue doing the job here. The community, getting community buy in, has to be a little bit different, because they've seen a lot of programs. They see them come and go and they haven't seen much difference. The idea of some of the programs that we do, I want to say 80% of the patrols and the people we affect or the calls that we make are outside the campus area.

The mistake that Woodbridge Estates or the Woodbridge community, the old Jeffries Projects, the area where the Young Boys Incorporated had their headquarters. We are entrenched in that community, so you can't do it just by offering police services, by saying, "We're going to get the bad guys. You call us, we come. If we see paper hanging off, we're going to stop you." It has to be a different approach, so we looked at this pandemic as a perfect opportunity to do this approach. We found out there's a great deal of seniors there who nobody knows they're there. They don't come out. Their neighbors don't know who they are. They don't have relatives. They're by themselves.

We had a call one day that this lady says, "Well, usually, I see my neighbor when she comes out and she gets the mail, but the mail was piling up. I haven't seen her yet." Usually, when you get those kind of calls, that's the call from the works. We knocked on the door. We heard a voice saying, "I need some help, I can't move." She laid on the floor for three days. We forced a entry, she said, "I don't have anybody, I don't have any relatives, I don't know anybody." And for one of our officers, I'm going to have to give one of our officers, give him credit for starting this program.

He says, "You know what? We got a list of people. Nobody knows who they are, they don't know anybody." So we did three days a week wellness check. We get a list of the seniors in this area, we go there, and we knock on the door. Don't have to let us in. We just want to hear your voice. "Are you okay? Is there anything that you need?" And I can't tell you how appreciative that was. We started with about 15, and went to 25, now we've expanded it even greater, so once we got into this we said, "Let's take it a step further." We got a local church that puts together food baskets so every Friday we deliver meals to the seniors, and we're going to expand this even further because some seniors don't like direct deposits.

They don't trust them. They want to go to the bank. But they want a referral for going to the bank, so we're going to be out there and doing our community watch while you walk to the bank. Another thing that we discovered in the community was that we have a lot of youths, and we need to connect with them, so we get a lot of bikes. We get a lot of bikes that we confiscate that are stolen, we get a lot of bikes that are abandoned, so we bring them to the station. Our community bike officers repair them. And we give them out to the community. That's another system that we did.

What I consider a very important one that we do is that we have a watch, a safe watch program. If you live in the Woodbridge, you live off campus, you live in a medical center area, and you get home and you get off work at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, are you going out at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning if you're coming back from the casino at 1:00 o'clock? You call us and say, "I'm a block from my neighborhood." We'll be there. We're going to watch you go to your house. That has been very successful, and affected the crime rate because we saw an immediate decrease in robbery and carjackings.

Well, you've got ahead of it before anybody's got an opportunity to take advantage, right?

The thing about the Woodbridge community, the old Jeffries Projects, that holds an Appreciation Day for the officers at Wayne State, have a rivalry come in, hide those, the officers are out there interacting with this thing. That's a big switch.

DAWSEY: Yeah, no, that's a huge switch, and you know, I know as a member of this community that it has had impact. You are widely respected, even among folks who traditionally have had to have an oppositional stance against the police. Many of the anti-police brutality groups in the city know you, speak highly of you. I've heard some folks say, "Well, I'd rather have him as the Chief of Police in the city of Detroit." I'd like to ask you, and we need to keep you out at Wayne State as long as we can, but I want to ask you this. You know, people talk about police culture being a very difficult kind of nut to crack, especially when you start talking about these strategies that seem very nontraditional in a lot of ways. How has the department taken to your promotion and advocacy of de-escalation training of the community police?

HOLT: Really, police is a very fraternal organization. Police officers, they socialize. It's a negative sort of socialization. That's just how it is. Most people won't really present that. I know when I started, and that's in the '70s, and they were coming off patrolling '60s, it's a very negative approach the law enforcement at that time really thought about the community. You know, so you have to be careful you don't get twisted by people in the department who have that sort of twisted, negative attitude. That's why, when I said earlier, it has to be driven from the top.

We have body cams, so we just don't put a body cam on an officer then we get a complaint, we say, "Oh, let's bring up the body cam." We're reviewing this on a daily basis. We see things that the citizens don't make a complaint about and we'll call the officer in and we'll review this. We want to know, "Why was he handcuffed that soon? Why do you handcuff him and sit him on the curb?" We talk about the approach. "Why are you approaching a car with your hand on your weapons right away?" We're going over this. We want to catch it before the complaint comes in. Since George Floyd, complaints come in all the time. But you have to respond to it.

DAWSEY: Absolutely, no question. Now, one other thing, like I said, you're very widely respected, but you do have your critics, and there have been folks who have been critical of WSUPD because of its role in CompStat. I've sat in on meetings with you, heard some complaints from student groups, other folks in the community who've feared that the CompStat's figures are being used to somehow engage in discriminatory policing, or that these numbers are being used to sort of predict crime, and therefore get people in trouble before they even get in trouble. I'd like to give you an opportunity to explain our relationship to CompStat and how it's actually used.

HOLT: To me, CompStat is probably one of the most effective principles that I put in here. Before CompStat, basically, we had a briefing in we said we had a robbery here, we have a robbery there, or we have a black male with a black hoodie and dark clothing. Well, that fits me and everybody else. That's not specific. Does that mean you go out and you stop every black male that has a hoodie on and wearing dark clothing? No.

Now we get CompStat. We bring that in. It's data-driven, so the officers have a purpose to go out. When I mention what we did at Woodbridge, in a two weeks period at one time, we had six carjackings. As people were coming to their house, a car would pull up, rob them, or carjack them. It's not just me in CompStat. My CompStat is a little different because when I started the community sits in on the CompStat, and we get specifics. I specifically know what crime happened in the last two weeks, what happened last year at this time, and from that, we could predict.

We get a pattern. We have to have a pattern that we go by. Right now, let's say airbags and, it's one of the highest things, catalytic converters are probably the highest larceny content going around. We get specific cars that they're doing this with. We narrow it down to a time that it's happening. So we have everybody around the table. When I started off with CompStat, it was just six officers here in my department. Now I have every law enforcement agency in this area, federal or local, Detroit Police, Wayne County Sheriffs, the federals, and what's more important, I have the community here.

Who better to tell you what's going on than the community? You could look at stats anyway you want to look at them. You can make them look good, you can make them look bad. But if you have the community, you don't have to have anyone in the community tell you if they're safe. I cringe when I see stats and it says, "You're living in the safest area you are living in right now." And the community will say, "They couldn't be talking about where I'm living, because this is what happened last week."

See, a lot of crime is under reported. If the community feels that, "Well, if I report the crime, they're going to say, 'Well, it's already happened, officer's not coming. I'll call this number to take the report on the phone.'" Then they'll say, "If I report it to the insurance company, my insurance is going to be canceled. And if I report it, they're not going to catch anybody." So a lot of crime goes unreported, and the younger groups in the neighborhoods, they'll say, "No, I'll take care of it myself."

So, CompStat, we bring them to the meeting where we say, "We're looking for this description," they'll say, "No, this is this guy. This is where he lives." I had offers, doing CompStat for the community, they said, "Why don't you come in my house and use my house and look out the window?" I started that, but that's not effective, because they get so involved with the officers he's eating dinner in the house instead of doing his job there. When you get that kind of buy in, that's going to be very effective.

DAWSEY: Now, one other thing I want to ask you, and I know we're getting late, I don't want to keep you too long, but one thing I did want to ask you, too, is about what you're anticipating for campus come fall. We've seen the past year, the campus has been largely closed, but a lot of the students in the city have been involved in various movements and change groups like Detroit Can Breathe. We've got students who are involved in that, students who are involved in some of the other movements around the city and around the region. Some of this has involved unrest and some clashing with police officers. I'm just kind of curious, as the fall is kind of coming back, Wayne State is going to be reopening fully again. What are you anticipating in terms of the level of social passion, social unrest that we've seen in Detroit and around the country, and how are you thinking about how you'll handle that?

HOLT: It's going to be ongoing. This is not a cycle where they protest for a month, they took a break during the winter, and now it's over. No, this is for here. This is a defining moment for the force. You know, I was a student at Wayne in the '60s, in the late '60s. That was the year of the Vietnam protests, the black power protests, the Black Panthers were in full operation. I grew up in that era. When the Black Student Association took over HNJ, that movement was probably responsible for my first promotion, so protest is the daily life of campus life here.

For example, the Black Student Union hosted a protest several weeks ago, a rally. We monitored the rally. We monitored to see who they are, and taking notes. We're monitoring the rally for safety of the students, also that they're not disrupting the university, but when they decide, "We're going to march down Warren Avenue, down Warword, to the African American Museum," we know the climate, and we know that other cars ... we don't want anyone to be like Charlotte, where someone's going to ride into the crowd. So we're blocking traffic. We're in front of the rally and we're being the rally.

I don't think we're getting the message out good enough why we're there, but it's not the monitor them, but to makes sure that these rallies can go on peacefully.

DAWSEY: And that's frankly in keeping with your very long history there. I know, I was a student there as well, and I remember when you were an officer there, and I can certainly say from the first person perspective that you're always respectful, always acknowledging of the struggles that the students were engaged in, and always supportive in every way that you could reasonably be expected to be.

HOLT: And I think that that's one of the great things that has carried over in terms of your tenure as a police chief here, that attitude, I think, has been very helpful in terms of easing some of the tensions that might otherwise have flared up in the system. Chief Holt, I'm going to wrap up now, but I want to say thank you. I really appreciate you taking the time. This was a great inaugural podcast and you're a great first guest to have.

DAWSEY: Is there anything else that maybe you wanted to add that we did not get an opportunity to talk about?

HOLT: I just want to say we have a very transparent process here. For those who want to make a complaint, they see something they don't like, you don't have to come in the station and fill out paperwork. We have a website, you can make a citizen's complaint on the website, you can make a comment, and we're very transparent, and we depend on that kind of input. At times, we think we're doing everything right, but once we get a review of what people are saying, maybe we're not doing everything right.

But the only way we're going to know, if we have an open line of communication.

DAWSEY: Well, I think that's one of the things that sets you apart from a lot of your contemporaries, and that is the willingness to try and see what you're doing wrong and to get that right. Chief Holt, I want to say thank you, again. I really appreciate you taking the time and joining us here on the Today at Wayne podcast. I am Darrell Dawsey, this has been the Today at Wayne podcast, and we hope to see you again real soon. Thank you.

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