Mimesis Law
20 October 2017

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 CityKansas CitySeattle 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?

9 Comments on this post.

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  • Max Kennerly
    30 November 2015 at 9:31 am - Reply

    The variability of police use of force training is insane: http://nij.gov/topics/law-enforcement/officer-safety/use-of-force/pages/research.aspx A fifth have no continuum of force at all? In the remaining departments, there are over 120 variations in the progression of force?

    Worse, many of their programs come directly from private companies, with marketing claiming that they’re “constitutional.” With that fraudulent stamp of approval, departments come to believe that any use of force that arguably meets the bogus criteria is perfectly fine. Not too long ago I had a training sergeant testify under oath that, when a “non-moving resistor” fails to comply with a verbal command, they become an “assailant,” and so any use of force beneath “deadly” is appropriate. Unsurprising, the department’s cops had a tendency to yell something and then go right for the chemical spray, the taser, or the baton.

    I have no doubt improved training could make a huge difference, because the training most cops have now is atrocious.

    • shg
      30 November 2015 at 9:47 am - Reply

      There are some instances where improvement in training on the use of force, per se, and continuum will be very helpful (particularly with the mentally ill), but it fails to address the question of whether a cop needs to (or can) be “trained” not to kill an unarmed person who poses no imminent threat to life.

      • Max Kennerly
        30 November 2015 at 10:57 am - Reply

        I think there is certainly room for improvement. The absolute worst time to contemplate the particulars for the use of force is in the middle of a confrontation. Few cops actually want to be involved in a fatal shooting; even a pure psychopath would recognize the consequences to themselves of a fatal shooting). Yet, many of them end up in situations with little more guidance than their instincts and a generalized belief they’re entitled to use force. Even if an outside observer could tell there is no imminent threat of harm, the police officer will likely be in an agitated state with an increased heart rate, increased breathing, and all the rest of those things that make people prone to rash, defensive, and violent decisions.

        The more experience (through training) that police officers have with these types of situations and the better guidance they have, the better their reactions will be.

        Is better training a panacea? Certainly not. But the current level of training sucks. E.g., only about 15% of police departments have training in handling mentally ill suspects. The majority of cops have absolutely no guidance for how to de-escalate situations, and it’s no surprise that a huge number of them fail to figure out how to do that on the spot. Better training is low-hanging fruit.

        • shg
          30 November 2015 at 12:24 pm - Reply

          I suspect your grasp of the reality of what cops do and why is a bit “academic.”

  • Jill McMahon
    30 November 2015 at 4:29 pm - Reply

    For me, the most telling (and depressing) sentence is, “Critics say the tactics are time-consuming when time is particularly of the essence.” That, and they do it because they can.

    • shg
      30 November 2015 at 4:32 pm - Reply

      Waiting out an angry person is, indeed, time consuming. And the cops have much better things to do with their time than wait so that some guy should live. Rarely is time of the essence unless cops make it of the essence.. Some may involve donuts, but it would be rude to say so.

  • Jack
    30 November 2015 at 6:11 pm - Reply

    So only 643 hours of training to become a cop in Texas, but you need 1500 hours of training if you want to cut peoples’ hair or do their nails in Texas?

    While another thousand hours of training officers to not needlessly kill people won’t magically instill them with some humanity, it might at least teach them to recognize that they aren’t in a life and death struggle for their firearm with that person having a diabetic seizure, that a taser isn’t the best tool on their belt for dealing with a kindergartner pointing their Pop-Tart at you while calling you a “Stupid Head”, and that every once and a while schizophrenic people sometimes do strange things and don’t always do what they’re told immediately.

  • Police Training, Complaints, and Statistics
    1 December 2015 at 9:07 am - Reply

    […] Part of this has been driven by shootings of mentally ill subjects by Dallas Police, such as the shooting of Jason Harrison on June 14, 2015, or Bobby Bennett on October 14, 2013. The police were criticized in both cases and training is the “low-hanging fruit” according to a comment on Scott Greenfield’s post on de-escalation training. […]

  • Sleepy Beatdown Buys Metro Cop a Ticket to Unemployment
    5 October 2016 at 9:36 am - Reply

    […] being assaulted. Rather, it seems to be a totally gratuitous escalation of the encounter, the kind progressive Texas cops are no longer supposed to engage […]