The De-escalation Myth

The word of the moment for the last few weeks has been de-escalation. From so-called experts to so-called journalists, to former Navy Seals transitioning into experts on everything, de-escalation is the key. It is the key to avoiding more officer-involved shootings, more assaults on officers, assaults by officers, and riot control. If police officers had more and better training at de-escalation, the world would be a much safer place.

As I write this, the most polite term that comes to mind concerning this assertion is hogwash! Of course, I probably should not use the term hogwash. Someone might feel it was subtly offensive, but the other word that comes to mind is not fit for polite company. Here is the problem.

De-escalation only works up to a point. Does that mean officers should not receive such training, absolutely not. Many officers do receive such training. If not formally, they learn it through field training and experience. No police chief, sheriff, or director of public safety wants officers working the street who think the only way to handle a problem is with force.

Critics of law enforcement training claim street cops need more training in this area of handling conflict. One can debate that issue from now until the cows come home, but here is the bottom line. Unless the de-escalation effort results in the subject to the techniques being allowed to remain free, it will not work. If the end result of the de-escalation exercise results in an arrest or detention, the process was likely an exercise in futility.

Yes, all the training the officer receives, all the work the officer or officers do to defuse a situation will be for naught if the suspect needs to be taken into custody. When the officer says, “You’re being placed under arrest,” or “You’ll need to come with me,” the odds are the suspect’s adrenaline level will go through the roof, and the battle will be joined.

One of the latest police officer-involved shootings in the news as this is being written is a prime example of the problem. Available video shows a very cordial, even jovial at times, exchange involving the officers and the subject. The suspect submits to tests, answers questions, and seems to be cooperating. Yep, everything was fine until the officers tried to make the arrest. Then it hit the fan, and the result was another horrible headline, a tragic death, the burning of a business, riots in the street, and officers charged with serious crimes.

It is possible to deal with a rational or at least somewhat reasonable subject without an arrest becoming a brawl or worse. The problem is there are no magic words or actions that will guarantee that result. As any officer with significant street experience can tell you. A fully cooperative or entirely calmed down individual can go nuts when he or she is told they are under arrest. Even after they have submitted to being handcuffed, individuals have suddenly become violent.

Someone who has never experienced the situation cannot imagine how much damage can take place, even after someone is cuffed. My introduction to this fact was early in my career and involved a 100-pound, handcuffed woman. Since it was not her first rodeo, she was not horribly uncooperative, even when she was arrested. Then, she decided she was not getting into the squad car.

Keep in mind, she was “restrained” as the law allowed and policy required. Luckily, for her and me, my partner was a 6′ 4″200-pound plus officer who showed a great deal of restraint. The young woman had already attempted to assault me and was stoned or intoxicated, it was hard to know which. Again, the restraint practiced by the other officer was vital in keeping this situation from getting completely out of hand.

By restraint, I am not speaking of his mannerisms or attitude. I am saying it took two of us to get the suspect into the back of the unit. Then he physically restrained her, keeping her pinned down in the back seat to keep her from injuring herself or damaging the vehicle. Thankfully, we were only a few minutes from the PD running Code 3, and damage to everyone and the unit was minimal.

Humans do the craziest things when the consequences of their actions confront them. That is why one hears of prisoners committing suicide while in police custody. That is why a wholly cooperative and rational seeming individual will attack two armed police officers during a domestic violence call. When the officers tell the complaining party their spouse is going to jail for beating them, the victim often becomes the threat. Which brings us back to the myth that de-escalation or heaven forbid, social worker intervention, will prevent the problems being experienced today.

The problems with the call for more de-escalation training are twofold. First, it can be complicated to deal with some subjects in any manner. The “officers need more training” crowd have cited de-escalation as the cure for bad situations. One claim is suspects will cooperate or be controlled until backups can reach the scene. That may or may not be the case, but there is another problem.

The longer officers are on the scene, the more likely something else will go wrong. The more officers who respond to the call, the higher the likelihood someone will over-react. Also, in some cases, there is not enough time or assistance, and you’re back at square one.

The other problem is apparent de-escalation can lead to something like the Atlanta debacle. The suspect is calm, and the officers think things are under control. Then, all hell breaks loose, and everyone over-reacts. The offender suddenly feels he’s been misled, the officers suddenly think they screwed up. A driving-under-the-influence arrest turns into an officer-involved shooting.

De-escalation techniques and training are great when they work. The idea they are the answer to what ails our society and the relationship between law enforcement and some communities is a myth, at best!


About S. Eric Jackson

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