Mimesis Law
18 August 2019

De-Escalation Ain’t What It Used To Be

July 2, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — A long time ago, a police officer I worked with said something that I have remembered ever since. We were both police corporals and field training officers (FTO) at our department and were at an FTO meeting when he said:

“Dealing with citizens is very easy. You treat everyone like they have a million dollars—but be prepared to kill them.”

This is a different mindset than is common among police today. The main idea that used to be taught to police officers about conflicts on the streets was to try to de-escalate the situation. There are techniques like “Verbal Judo” by Dr. George Thompson that are designed to lower the temperature of the confrontation and avoid the use of physical force. The longer I was a police officer, the more I liked that idea, since fighting a teenager when you’re in your forties is no longer fun.

On Tuesday we talked about the Seattle Police shooting an unarmed man and settling with him for about $2 million. This event took about 20-25 minutes to unfold and went from a knock on the front door to an officer taking a shot at the citizen’s head in that short time. That is a pretty rapid escalation of the situation, from calm to deadly force. That’s not treating someone well but being prepared in case things go bad; that’s planning on things going bad from the start.

The problem is that departments do not really encourage a de-escalation solution anymore, and the culture at the street level is to blow off that type of solution. We are at “war” with drugs, with crime, and so forth, until the officers see the citizens as the enemy.

So you end up with departments like Albuquerque (which has killed almost two dozen in police shootings in five years) or Seattle (which just signed a Department of Justice consent decree over excessive force, among other issues). At all of these departments, additional training is put on for the street officers, to try and change their mindset. The New York Times was able to watch one at Seattle.

The problem is that the officers do not see a need to change and don’t want to change, and the instructors don’t have the ability to change their mind. If the instructor is from outside the department, they just don’t know what it is like here. If they are from the department, they don’t believe in the training.

So you get someone like Officer Corey Papinsky who, while conducting de-escalation training for Seattle PD is met by resistance from officers, and de-escalates himself, saying “Don’t shoot the messenger, this is what the DOJ is saying, not me.” Yeah, that’s going to inspire the officers in the class to listen and learn. Look at the tape, at about 1:25, and you’ll see what another officer thinks:

Last week, there was a guy in a car who wouldn’t show me his hands. I pulled my gun out and stuck it right in his nose, and I go, ‘Show me your hands now!’ That’s de-escalation.

Thankfully, the Seattle Chief of Police is conducting an Internal Affairs investigation on both this officer and the instructor. The only way to change the culture is to force change from the top-down and from the outside. The new chief was originally from Boston (as the police commissioner) and Ireland (where she worked on police corruption issues).  The problem is that she has to work through others who normally came up through the police culture that she has to change.

Hopefully she can get to the point that officers treat everyone like they have a million dollars on the front end, and the being prepared to kill will be needed a lot less on the back end.

Main image via Flickr/Tony Webster.

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