There was quite a bit of media coverage earlier this month when the Los Angeles Police Department announced that it had revised its use-of-force policy. However, the reality is that very little has changed since the major revision to the policy in 2009.
The 2017 policy revision consists of one new sentence (in the Preamble section, strangely not in the policy itself) and one modified sentence in the Policy section.
The new sentence in the Preamble is:
Officers shall attempt to control an incident by using time, distance, communications, and available resources in an effort to de-escalate the situation whenever it is safe and reasonable to do so.
The revised sentence that later appears in the Policy section itself is a minor modification to the traditional list of the so-called Graham factors, based upon the United States Supreme Court case Graham v. Connor 490 U.S. 386 (1989) that has long provided a legal framework for analysis of the use of force. The list of Graham factors has been long used by many agencies to determine reasonableness of a use of force. One of the traditional factors is “The time available to an officer to make a decision.” The modified language at LAPD is:
The amount of time and any changing circumstances during which the officer had to determine the type and amount of force that appeared to be reasonable.
That’s it! So what’s not to like?
One notes that no other sentence except the new one in the Preamble section directs officers to do anything in particular, so one wonders why that direction is not in the policy itself. How LAPD management and the politically appointed Board of Police Commissioners applies a mandate that is not part of the formal policy itself will be interesting to watch as it unfolds.
In my view, the key part of the new sentence in the Preamble is the last nine words. Officers shall attempt (to de-escalate) “whenever it is safe and reasonable to do so.” I believe those nine words allowed the Los Angeles Police Protective League (the officers’ union) to support the change. Because the plain words on the policy page recognize that it is not always safe and reasonable to de-escalate. Sometimes immediate action must be taken to save a life, including the officer’s own! And that’s certainly not news.
As for de-escalation, there is nothing new about the concept, but it sure is getting plenty of attention around the country in the post-Ferguson police environment. The media, the Obama Department of Justice (recently departed), and some members of the public have treated de-escalation as if it is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Finally, the miracle cure! Why, if only those crazy cops would just de-escalate, there wouldn’t be any police shootings!
But there is no pot of gold, there is no end of the rainbow, there is no… well, silver bullet.
De-escalation is prominently included in the "National Consensus Policy on Use of Force," published in January and signed by 11 prominent police management and labor organizations, including the Fraternal Order of Police and the International Association of Chiefs of Police. “An officer shall use de-escalation techniques and other alternatives to higher levels of force consistent with his or her training whenever possible and appropriate before resorting to force and to reduce the need for force. Whenever possible and when such delay will not compromise the safety of the officer or another and will not result in the destruction of evidence, escape of a suspect, or commission of a crime, an officer shall allow an individual time and opportunity to submit to verbal commands before force is used.” You may view the entire National Consensus Policy at here.
Officers have used de-escalation techniques since there have been officers and police departments.
De-escalation, having to do with verbalization, positioning for cover or concealment, maintaining distance to overcome the reactionary gap, is a time-honored, tactically smart way of doing business. This is precisely why studies over the decades have shown that officers use reportable force in fewer than two percent of all arrests. Most people submit to arrest when you tell them to. A relative few people don’t.
That said, there are plenty of incidents where police trainers (myself included) scratch our heads and wonder why it was necessary to rush in to handle a situation when nobody was in imminent danger of death or great bodily injury.
Perhaps the value of the loud noise about de-escalation is to re-emphasize the need to conduct intense training that teaches us to distinguish between those challenging incidents where it is wise to wait, talk, get backup, get nonlethal weapons, get a supervisor, and make a plan versus those incidents where it is proper to take the risk, rush in, and save the life.
Sometimes these are tough calls to make. Each situation is unique and presents its own threat level. Sometimes the outcomes are not what we want to see, and sometimes the outcome won’t look good on television. You might need to quickly shoot the guy that won’t put down the knife he is holding to the hostage’s neck in order to save her life. On the other hand, you might need to keep your distance while you verbalize, get on the radio, and attempt to put some cover between yourself and the knife-wielding crazy guy who is alone over there.
One thing is clear. These days, you would be wise when you write your report or are interviewed during the investigation of a critical incident, to be able to explain what de-escalation efforts you attempted if it was safe and reasonable to so, or explain why there was no opportunity to de-escalate.
Greg Meyer is a retired LAPD captain and a longtime member of the POLICE Advisory Board.