De-escalation vs. Use of Force: Are we sending mixed messages
Dr. Philip J. Swift
In 2015, I became involved in a law enforcement reform process that would not only change the way the agency provided services to the community, but would test the resiliency of the agency’s culture. As with most law enforcement reform undertakings, this reform movement came on the heels of a use of force (UOF) incident that resulted in the death of a detainee. Following this incident community and family members made allegations of excessive force and institutional racism, inferring that excessive force was used because the detainee was African-American. The criminal and administrative investigations into this matter determined that the involved officers had not used excessive force and had not violated agency policy.
Unsatisfied with the finding of the criminal and administrative investigations, family members of the deceased filed a civil rights lawsuit in Federal court against the city, the agency, and the officers. A jury found the officers guilty of violating the plaintiff’s civil rights and handed down a multi-million-dollar settlement. Following the announcement of the verdict reform of both the Police and the Sheriff’s Office was demanded by citizenry. To address the concerns of the community and to ensure the transparency of the reform process an outside firm was hired by the city to evaluate the agency’s policies and procedures and to document reform recommendations.
One of the principal recommendations made by the firm was the adoption of de-escalation based UOF policy where in an officer first asks themselves if force should be used rather than can force be used. This reform recommendation was quickly adopted by the agency and touted as the future of law enforcement nationwide as well as foundation of an inevitable cultural shift amongst law enforcement officers. To jump start a shift in the existing culture new officers are taught to use “verbal judo” and “crisis intervention” skills to de-escalate a violent or dangerous situation first, and to only use force when de-escalation fails or is not applicable to the situation. Veteran officers, who were generally resistive to the new UOF, received intensive in-service training during which new UOF policy was introduced and used as a mechanism to illustrate the necessity and inevitable of the a cultural shift in law enforcement.
Due to a series of “unfortunate events” and by no action of my own, I became the facilitator of in-service UOF .My primary objectives during training were to reassure veteran officers that the core of the agency’s UOF policy remained intact, that de-escalation was simply a new term used to describe what they were already doing during volatile situation to avoid using force, that the lion’s share of the changes revolved around report writing requirements, and that these changes were inevitable and not a knee jerk reaction to public outcry. Additionally, officers needed reassurance that this policy “wasn’t going to get them killed or fired”.
During this UOF training officers were taught that the new de-escalation UOF policy requires them use the “least amount of force necessary” to safely bring the incident under control and that de-escalation must be used, “when time and circumstances allow”. To say the least, the nondescript and vague language used to describe when and what kind of force an officer can use led to confusion and the that a failure to interpret these new requirements accurately would lead to suspension/termination for violating procedure. In the end, all officers really wanted to know was when they could use force without violating policy. However, many of officer were left with the feeling that when faced with a violent or dangerous individual they were now required to undertake an introspective internal monologue in an attempt to properly interpret vague and abstract terms that they did not understand prior to making a decision regarding the type and amount of force they would be authorized to use. The result of this shift in UOF doctrine created an agency full of “rookie” officers who were unsure when they could, when they should, and what type of force they could use and were reluctant to use force even when blatantly authorized to do so.
While veteran officers were attending in-service training and wrestling with both the policy and the threat to their culture that the policy represented, the agency undertook a massive hiring spree in which 20-30% of the agency’s total staffing was hired in approximately 18 months. The result of these changes created a gap, and a certain amount of distrust, between veteran and new officers based on the way each group viewed UOF and de-escalation. New officers feel like veteran officers will get them involved in excessive force complaints while veteran officers feel that new officers will get them hurt because they will attempt to de-escalate situations when force is necessary. The polarization of these two groups of officers has resulted in an increase in accusations of crowdedness by officers when an officer chooses not to use force based on the new policy. Further, anytime a new officers or new supervisor chooses not to or fails to use or authorize force during an incident the new policy is blamed regardless of the actual facts of the incident. These accusations of crowdedness, some with and some without merit are generally leveled by veteran officers against new officers/supervisors, further highlighting animosity created by the new policy.
When I was informed that I would be teaching the new UOF policy during in-service I was concerned that my own resistance to the adoption of a de-escalation based UOF policy would seriously impact my ability to provide the type of training and guidance that the agency was asking of me. With the help of one of the best legal minds that I know I began to educate myself about the history of de-escalation based UOF polices and the relativity new push of groups such as the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) for the adoption of such policies. After several months of research, conversations, and an examination of my own thoughts I became a believer in the concept of a de-escalation based UOF policies and the protection that it can afford to officers, agencies, and communities.
My belief in the new policy was the cornerstone of the in-service training that I delivered to officers and the one on one discussions that I have had with supervisors and officers since the new policy went into effect. However, my faith in a de-escalation based policy would not go unchallenged. In August 2017, my belief in the new policy was shaken when it was reported by several law enforcement organizations that Brain Landers, a former officer and chair of the criminal justice department at Madison College in Wisconsin conducted a study that explored the injury and death rates of officers who worked for agencies with a de-escalation based UOF policy. The results of Mr. Landers’ thesis were that officers working for agencies with a de-escalation UOF policy were twice as likely to be killed and ten times as likely to be injured in the line of duty than officers working for agencies without such a policy. Faced with the results of this study I had cause to ask myself, “Why are more officers being killed and injured in the line of duty if a de-escalation based UOF policy truly only requires de-escalation in leu of force when it is safe to do so and does not change the type of force that can be used when force is necessary?”
While contemplating the wide variety of factors that might be influencing an increased rate of officer injuries and death, including social and political changes, I was reminded of several studies in which the characteristics of slain police officers were evaluated. The results of these studies indicated that officers who were slain in the line of duty shared common characteristics such as friendliness, service oriented, and a reluctance to use force. Interestingly each of these characteristics is promoted in a de-escalation UOF policy. Based on the similarity of the common characteristics of slain officers and promotion of these characteristics in a de-escalation based UOF the following theories were developed: (a) Officer working for agencies with de-escalation based UOF policies, were in fact manifesting characteristics that were undermining the safety of the office? (b) Are we forcing officers to put their safety at risk by giving them ambiguous expectations of when and what kind of force should be used? Although, Mr. Landers’ study seems to support the correlation between de-escalation UOF policies and injury/death rates the question that I continue to ask myself is, “Is it bad policy or poor messaging?”
The primary complaint the I have received from officers and supervisors is that they feel that they cannot act quickly to protect themselves or others, rather they are forced to take pause to consider if they have sufficiently attempted to de-escalate a situation, and if the force they intend to use is the least amount of force necessary needed to control the situation. This complaint would seem to support my fear that officers are reluctant to use force when it is necessary to protect themselves or third parties. If this is in fact the case then the agency and I placed officers in harm’s way by failing to communicate the way in which the de-escalation UOF policy should be applied to real life situation.
Are we then sending mixed messages about UOF and de-escalation? Sadly, when it comes to the agency I work for as well as those included in Mr. Landers’ study answer appears to be yes. Based on the what I have seen in my own agency, the trend toward de-escalation UOF polices, and the finding of Mr. Landers’ study I believe that this topic deserves additional attention and that proper messaging and a sensitivity to the reality of cultural change should be a primary concern of any agency considering to a de-escalation doctrine.
Site Administrator: Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP
Please share this article from down below.
Please join the email list on the top of the sidebar and you can get these sent to your email. Also follow me on Twitter (https://twitter.com/ThinBlueMind) for other articles and ideas, and YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCfjNw0510ipr3bX587IvAHg .