Can Cops Be Trained to De-Escalate?
Nov. 30, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — Whenever something goes horribly awry with a police encounter, which usually means that the non-cop ended up dead, there is invariably a call for better training. This always seemed a rather facile response, as if the training developed for police up to now has been so horribly deficient that they weren’t aware that the idea was to not kill people without a really, really good reason.
But then, the core problem is the concern that nobody has to teach a cop not to needlessly kill a guy. Right?
Yet in Texas, there has been a significant push to train police to de-escalate interactions in the hope that there will be less violence. And it appears to be working.
Texas’ basic peace officer course was last revised in 2014 and will be overhauled sooner than later. Currently, DPD deputy chief Jeff Cotner is leading a TCLE committee undertaking a yearlong review of the 643-hour course, flack Gretchen Grisby said. Your correspondent emailed Cotner to inquire as to whether de-escalation tactics are being considered in that review but didn’t immediately hear back.
An August 2015 PERF report recommends the “overhaul of police training, policy, supervision and culture on use of force.” While many high-profile shootings may have been legally justified, the report said, “there were missed opportunities” to calm things down before shots were fired. Instead of training officers on what they can legally do, PERF suggests officers receive training on what they should do.
PERF surveyed 281 police agencies, which spent about 58 hours training on firearms, 49 hours on defensive tactics and eight hours on de-escalation and crisis intervention. Traditionally, officers are taught to use deadly force when it’s justified, not necessarily to slow things down. Critics say the tactics are time-consuming when time is particularly of the essence.
So up to now, nobody taught Texas cops not to kill people just because they could get away with it? Who knew? And police claim it’s working.
Still, police in Dallas, New York City, Kansas City, Seattle and Los Angeles have recently added training on the subject. Excessive force complaints against DPD officers are on track to be the lowest this year in 20 years, a drop Chief David Brown attributes to de-escalation training.
This issue goes to one of the most significant, and constant, complaints about police encounters, that the opportunity to de-escalate exists, but police tend to exacerbate the situation instead. And as things get more contentious, the likelihood of bad things happening increases.
Yet, the problem with training police to de-escalate is that it means they give up the control over others that they feel they desperately need for their own safety. As Greg Prickett explained:
The First Rule of Policing is to go home alive at the end of your shift. All cops know this, and the focus on officer safety is high. Believe it or not, that’s a good thing. We should all want police officers to go home every night, to be safe and make sure that they are not hurt. I’m all for officer safety.
Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that a cop’s safety comes at the expense of a non-cop’s life, except when it does. Greg, of course, sees the light more clearly now, but now he’s a lawyer. He saw things differently when he was on the job:
But all of that was learned with hindsight, after I left the police department.
You wouldn’t have been able to convince me of that while I was still an officer. I had faith, I was a true-believer, and people who weren’t cops just don’t understand. It’s like a religion, and an unbeliever is not going to be able to convert a believer.
The question is whether this is a problem susceptible to cure by training. Can cops be trained to cede a measure of control, and personal safety, to avoid the use of force? Is it possible that a cop will accept a greater degree of risk, in violation of the First Rule of Policing, because he was taught it’s better to de-escalate an encounter than assert Command Presence and, should someone not be compliant, back it up with force?
Or to bring this question to its lowest common denominator, does a police officer, still a human being beneath the blue and the shield, really need to be told not to kill another human being when he has other options available to him?
Greg believes that something must be done to change the culture of violence.
You’re going to have to force change. It will have to come from the outside, and there is going to be resistance, because you’re trying to change their religion. But it has to be done, or officers will continue to handle situations like I did. And that’s not the best way to do business.
And, indeed, who wouldn’t want to see far fewer people harmed, killed, by police? Who wouldn’t support the idea that only in the most extreme situations, where a real threat of death or serious injury exists, should force be used?
Can training accomplish this? It’s hard to imagine that a few weeks of empathy training will turn a cop from killing machine to protector. Still, there are certainly tactics that could be taught that will both protect a police officer from harm and prevent the needless use of force. Which brings me back to the first question: why are they putting people on the street with guns and shields who haven’t been taught how to do their job without engaging in needless violence?