THE GUY HOLDING the butcher knife had a simple mantra that he kept repeating to the two Philadelphia Police officers in front of him: "If you don't shoot me, you're going to regret it."

This was back in August, on a steamy day on Warnock Street near Somerset in North Philly.

Officers Brian Nolan and Anthony Santulli kept their eyes on the unhinged man, while his relatives wailed in the background, begging the cops to help him, not hurt him.

So Nolan, 26, and Santulli, 24, started talking. Five minutes turned into 10. The guy gave up the knife, and the young cops took him to Temple University Hospital's Episcopal Campus for a mental-health evaluation.

For talking their way out of a tense, dangerous situation that could have ended in bloodshed, Nolan and Santulli received awards for "Tactical De-Escalation" during a merit ceremony yesterday at the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5's headquarters.

Scores of cops received awards for bravery, heroism and lifesaving acts. But Nolan and Santulli - who work in North Philly's 22nd District - were among 23 officers recognized by the Police Department for their de-escalation skills, marking the first time that such efforts were singled out for praise.

"I think in today's world it's very important," Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey said after the ceremony ended.

"Police officers have been de-escalating situations for decades, but they've done so without any real recognition. So we're actually a little behind the curve."

Ramsey said the honored cops could have legally used deadly force to resolve the conflicts, all of which involved people who were armed with either handguns or knives - and, in some cases, were also mentally ill.

"If it's a person who needs mental-health treatment, they don't need a bullet," he said. "If they come at you and try to take your life, that's a different story. But if there's a way in which we can get it resolved and get them the help they need, it's better for everybody."

Nolan also received a valor award - named after the late Sgt. Robert Wilson III, who was gunned down in March by armed robbers in a North Philly GameStop - for apprehending a man who shot at him several times.

Officer William Barr was also among the cops who received de-escalation awards.

Barr, who works in the 25th District, showed up at the scene of a car accident in North Philly on a cold, rainy day in October, and encountered a knife-wielding man who darted into a nearby alley.

"He was emotionally distressed, and held the knife to his throat," said Barr, 35.

"I tried to be emotionally intelligent about it and build some sort of rapport with him. It just seemed like he needed a friend."

Barr stood in the rain for 40 minutes and steered the conversation to light topics, like late-night talk-show hosts. The man eventually calmed down, and gave up the blade he'd been clutching.

"I just wanted him to know I was a person," Barr said. "I had to convince him that I wasn't there to hurt him, that we could get through it together."

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