Police Move Towards De-escalation
- Written by Matt Kenyon
- December 15 2016
This fall, the Chicago Police Department published the proposed revisions to its use of force policy, posting it online to gather feedback from the public. The policy draft emphasizes “the sanctity of human life,” requiring officers to use de-escalation tactics and only resort to force when absolutely necessary.
As The Wall Street Journal points out, this use of de-escalation language is a major shift for the department, whose old policy defended an officer’s “use of any force which he reasonably believes necessary.”
Chicago Police Department is just one of the latest law enforcement agencies revising its use of force policies and training. In recent years, incidents of deadly shootings by police have captured headlines, prompting police departments around the country to put more emphasis on de-escalation tactics.
A cultural shift
Since the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in 2014, Congress has seen several pieces of legislation aimed at reforming police use of force. But many leaders in law enforcement think change must come from within.
Earlier this year, the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) released a report laying out 30 guiding principles on use of force. The report stresses that “the sanctity of human life should be at the heart of everything an agency does.” It urges police departments to make de-escalation a part of formal policies and a “core theme” of training.
The report also recommends “discontinuing outdated concepts, such as use of force continuums, the so-called ‘21-foot rule,’ and the idea that police must ‘draw a line in the sand’ and resolve all situations as quickly as possible.” Instead, the principles advise officers to use communication, time, distance and calm behavior to defuse tense situations.
PERF’s principles were endorsed by law enforcement agencies across the U.S.—including police departments in New York, Baltimore and Chicago.
“I think we’ve got to emphasize to our cops that their safety is important, but so is the safety of the public and the people that they’re dealing with,” Montgomery County, Maryland Police Chief Tom Manger said in the report. “Our goal should be that everybody goes home safely at the end of the day.”
Changes in training
For decades, law enforcement use of force policies and training have focused mainly on officer safety. De-escalation techniques have traditionally been part of police training, but surveys have shown that the average recruit receives eight hours of de-escalation training—contrasted with 58 hours of firearms training and 49 hours of defensive tactical training.
In October, PERF introduced a training program that teaches officers to de-escalate tense incidents involving people who are unarmed. According to The Washington Post, of the 990 people killed by police in 2015, roughly 40 percent didn’t have a gun.
“These shootings by and large are not the officer’s fault,” Chuck Wexler, PERF’s executive director, told The Washington Post. “They’re doing what they’re trained to do. We have to change that training. We have to give them more tools to slow things down. It’s a change in culture, a different way of thinking.”
PERF’s training programs and use-of-force guidelines have garnered pushback from some police chiefs, who argue that de-escalation is not practical or possible. But in many cases, law enforcement commanders say de-escalation tactics can save lives and improve police-community relations.
Between 2009 and 2014, the Dallas Police Department saw a 64 percent decrease in complaints about officers using excessive force. Assaults on officers declined by 30 percent in 2015, and shootings by police declined by 40 percent. In an interview with The Dallas Morning News, Police Chief David Brown attributed this to the department’s shift toward de-escalation. The department uses reality-based training to teach officers to slow down, assess each situation and try to build rapport with suspects instead of immediately rushing in.
Camden County, N.J., Police Chief J. Scott Thomson, who also serves as PERF’s board president, told The Washington Post that de-escalation training has given his officers more tools to handle tense situations. Since Camden police instituted a Guardian Culture Program in July 2015, the department has only had one officer-involved shooting, even though officers have responded to more than 2,400 calls involving armed persons. Complaints of officers using excessive force have declined by 42 percent.
“We’ve created a culture in policing where officers believe repositioning is retreating. And that we need to resolve situations as quickly as possible,” Thomson said. “And sometimes that may be the approach. But if we take a more deliberate approach, particularly when individuals don’t have firearms, we’re finding there are less incidents of use of deadly force.”
While law enforcement agencies disagree about the best methods of use of force training, the prevailing trend seems to be a move toward de-escalation.
“The business of being able to de-escalate situations … is paramount to what we’re going to do,” Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said at a press conference announcing Chicago’s policy changes. “Can you use force? Yes. Should you use force? Maybe not. There are maybe other alternatives you can utilize so that you don’t have to use deadly force.”