Are De-Escalation Policies Dangerous?

The origins of today’s concepts of de-escalation derive from the evolution of crisis communications. While these concepts are practical and effective in some situations, they are useless and even dangerous in others.

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The trend of law enforcement policy-making around use of force has been to implement de-escalation policies and mandates. Many police chiefs and sheriffs are considering de-escalation policies, and some may have been politically influenced to implement them. Regardless of reason, de-escalation policies are a predominant topic in contemporary law enforcement.

While using tactics and communication to avoid having to use force options is nothing new in law enforcement, the trend of creating policy that mandates these measures be taken is. The origins of today’s concepts of de-escalation derive from the evolution of crisis communications. Crisis communications, verbal judo, professional communications, all have their roots in decades-old concepts of hostage negotiations. The basic concepts of containing an individual while providing calm, clear communications to end hostage episodes peacefully have woven their way into today’s street policing. While these concepts are practical and effective in some situations, they are useless and even dangerous in others.

High-profile force incidents in recent years have spurred national dialog on police force practices and have cultivated a movement for cementing the concepts of force de-escalation into policies. But are the results of making de-escalation part of police policy having an effect on officer safety? I set out to answer this question.

What is De-Escalation?

But before we discuss my research, we need to talk about some key concepts.

Ask for a definition of de-escalation, and you are likely to get a wide variety of answers. De-escalation itself does not have a uniform definition in terms of its application to policing, but in reviewing many current de-escalation policies, I have found there are two predominant directives written into policy:

  1. Slow things down when faced with possible use-of-force incidents.
  2. Avoid or lessen your force options.

While this may seem good on paper, many street cops know this is not always entirely possible. Unfortunately, to those who perceive law enforcement as too aggressive, de-escalation seems like a very easy thing to do.

Use-of-force policies are commonly guided by the objectively reasonable standard. To place an impetus that an officer is generally expected to avoid or lessen force is using hindsight as 20/20, something the Supreme Court has ruled not to be feasible when analyzing an officer’s force option via Graham v. Connor. This creates a paradox of whether an officer's attempt to lessen/avoid force due to policy and ultimately needing to increase force later in the contact is indeed an objective application.

De-escalation policies could be confusing officers about when and how to use force in dealing with dangerous situations. An officer who has gone through several months of academy training, probationary on-the-job training with a veteran field training officer, annual in-service training, and more than 2,000 hours of annual experience on the street develops a strong sense of protective instinct. Telling that officer to pause and resist temptation to defend him- or herself generates confusion between instinctual safety and policy compliance.

What adds more complications to the de-escalation policy expectations are the training programs that officers are provided to meet policy expectations. Agencies are quick to send officers to the nearest de-escalation course in hopes of appeasing the public demand or to boast that their officers were "trained in de-escalation." But if their officers attended a basic police academy in their respective states, they already had a good dose of de-escalation strategies.

Law enforcement academies for years have integrated problem-based policing, Constitutional law, crisis communications, and force options training, all with a great deal of emphasis on when and how to use force that is objectively reasonable and how to effectively increase and decrease force options. By sending officers to de-escalation training courses, chiefs and sheriffs have risked these men and women becoming hesitant about using force. A review of several de-escalation courses revealed everything from very distinct reminders of tactical considerations of approach, dialog, and control concepts, to broad-based scare tactics that officers are being disciplined, fired, and sometimes charged for force applications. However, a message in the title of the course alone, “de-escalation,” makes it clear that officers are being encouraged to shy away from force.

Worse yet are those agencies that implement policies and offer little to no training on what is expected. Some chiefs and sheriffs will argue that the policy is only codifying what is already expected of the officer: to use as little force as possible. Yet the standard of force provided to us by the wisdom of the Supreme Court is not to use as little force as possible but the reasonably objective amount. To judge force by minimal increments is again an application of hindsight, or personal judgement. These chiefs and sheriffs may learn in the presence of a notice of claim, or courtroom, that while their policy had the best intentions it now has created a liability for their employers.

PERF's Influence on Policy

The Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) produced a 2016 report titled “Thirty Guiding Principles on Use of Force” that suggested there should be a nationwide policy on de-escalation. This report argued that such a national de-escalation policy would increase officer safety. Yet PERF offered no quantitative evidence to support that claim.

PERF lacks the legal authority to create such a policy, but the organization's suggestions are no doubt being heard and implemented by those influenced by its report. In my home state of Wisconsin, some lawmakers have cited the PERF report in seeking a bill to create a statewide de-escalation policy and training requirement. Representatives have specifically cited the PERF report and the benefits to law enforcement safety, if such a policy existed. Discussions with those behind the state proposal reveal a general lack of understanding of what de-escalation is, how it may create confusion for the officer on the street, and how there is no evidence to support a claim that de-escalation policies increase officer safety.

What policy-makers need to know is that de-escalation is not the magic bullet suggested in the political rhetoric and the PERF "Guidelines." The implementation of a de-escalation policy has both a qualitative and quantitative effect. I believe the qualitative effect could be creating a culture in which officers fear using force because they could violate policy, or at minimum face an ambiguous system of being internally investigated on force applications driven more by politics than law.

The Supreme Court ruling in Graham v. Connor set the legal precedent for how an officer’s use of force is to be judged. PERF and agencies seeking to align with PERF have offered to create a "higher standard than the Constitution" through policy, but have failed to define what that is and how it is to be judged. Thus, leaving officers wondering what effect their force options will have not only on their careers but also their lives.

Quantitative Results

It's extremely difficult if not impossible to measure the qualitative effect on law enforcement officers caused by de-escalation policies. But we can measure the quantitative effect.

I have taken on the task of doing so by testing PERF’s claim that these policies increase officer safety. To get an idea of the impact, I researched varying metropolitan police agencies in the United States that employed a total of more than 74,000 officers. Of these agencies, a comparison was done on agencies with and without de-escalation policies in correlation to data on officers killed during use-of-force incidents and officers injured during use-of-force incidents. I caution those citing my study to be clear that my results did not take into account factors such as crime rates, populations, demographics, and agency training. I was purely testing the presence of a policy and the data on officer safety. However, my results were concerning.

Five agencies—New York Police Department, Dallas Police Department, Cincinnati Police Department, New Orleans Police Department, and Louisville Metro Police Department—were studied as agencies with de-escalation policies, or de-escalation policies implemented sometime during the past five years. These five agencies totaled 42,444 total officers. In comparing these agencies to a pre-, and post-de-escalation environment, it was determined that officers were more than twice as likely to be killed in the line of duty and 10 times as likely to be injured in the line of duty during years when de-escalation policies went into effect.

A simple formula was used to find these results. The formula required the formulation of what I termed a "danger factor" per department. A danger factor is the percentage of incidents divided by the total number of sworn officers per agency. The danger factor was used in two categories that could best measure the effects of officer safety, with one category representing officers killed in the line of duty from a force-related incident and the other being those injured from force-related incidents. Data was collected from each agency independently from open source records or public information requests. This was done to provide a more accurate collection of data of all harmful events during force-related incidents specific to the agency.

For example, Dallas has approximately 3,484 sworn officers. In the years researched from 2012-2017, the Dallas PD had a danger factor of zero in the category of officers killed, except for 2016 when 4 of its officers were murdered in a sniper attack. Thus the 2016 danger factor was .0011 (4/3484=.0011%). In that same year, the City of Dallas reported 234 officer injuries from arrest- or force-related incidents, making the danger factor .067 (234/3484=.067%).

When comparing the five named agencies in years with de-escalation policies, to those years without, the danger factor of officer injuries when de-escalation was in place was considerably higher, .37% to .03%. When it came to officer deaths, years without de-escalation policies cumulatively produced a danger factor of .00012%, but jumped substantially to .00028% when de-escalation policies were in effect.

I also examined a comparable group of agencies as a control. The control agencies—Chicago Police Department, Los Angeles Police Department, Milwaukee Police Department, Tucson Police Department, San Diego Police Department, and Orlando Police Department—employ a total of 31,996 officers. While some of these agencies admittedly have de-escalation training, current policies specific to mandating de-escalation were either non-existent or had not yet been implemented at the time of my study.

A comparison of the first group of de-escalation agencies to the second group showed a significantly increased chance of death and injury for officers working with mandatory de-escalation tactics as policy. The "non-de-escalation agencies" had a cumulative injury danger factor of .085%, compared to the previously mentioned .37% injury rate for those with de-escalation policies in effect. The officer killed ratio for the de-escalation group was also higher, .0029% compared to .000073%.

I also compared both the de-escalation group and the control group to the national average of officers killed and injured. The national average for a five-year period was calculated using the FBI Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA) database. In the category of officers killed, agencies without de-escalation policies were very consistent to the national average, while those agencies with de-escalation policies in effect were 30% higher. In terms of injury rates, agencies without de-escalation policies were actually lower than the national average, while those agencies cited with de-escalation policies were 33% higher than average.

My investigation into the effects of de-escalation policies on officer safety was objective. I made no presumption about the data at the onset of the study. The agencies were selected predominantly due to their policy language and also the availability of records of officers killed and injured during use-of-force incidents. I am not attempting to ridicule or praise any agency in this study, and such factors as crime rates, populations, and demographics were noted variables but not recognized in my research. I believe my research should be expanded upon and its results debated to see if policy was the true impetus that increased officers killed and assaulted in these agencies. While I suggest the correlation of increased injuries and deaths consistently occurred during policy de-escalation years, I call upon other researchers to carry the torch to examine specific policy, training, or culture effects specific to each agency.

The Future of De-escalation

De-escalation practices have been used for generations in policing, but they have been historically applied on a case-by-case basis. My research is not to say that de-escalation as a concept should be avoided or dismissed. The practice of using one’s mind and mouth to resolve a situation is conceivably more beneficial to the officer and the person they are dealing with during certain situations. However, policy-makers in policing must be incredibly cautious as to what they mandate in policy that tends to bind an officer’s training and instinct.

Critics of my research will undoubtedly point to shining examples of de-escalation cases that have saved lives. Others will argue that a larger study of more agencies should be done. I agree on both counts, but the numbers I have provided should sound an alarm to chiefs and sheriffs alike to consider if these policies impact the safety decisions their officers must make. Again, I need to remind everyone that my research is not and should not be considered an attack on de-escalation. Yet there are those who will subjectively view it as such.

In a recent discussion I had with one chief, he told me he disagreed with my findings and stated that my research should be ignored. I found this viewpoint to be very concerning. Chiefs and sheriffs should always be willing to objectively consider research when it comes to the safety of the citizens they serve and the officers they command.

Officers should not have to make a choice between compromising their own safety and complying with policy. As I have stated in my research, and in this article, I call for further research of de-escalation policies in the name of officer safety. While de-escalation is a tool in every officer’s toolbox, policy should not mandate that it be the first tool out of the box in all situations. Until more is known about the true impact on officer safety of de-escalation mandates, government leaders should be cautious in their blanket acceptance of these policies.

Brian Landers is a former police lieutenant who owns his own consulting company that specializes in use of force and expert testimony. He is also mayor of the City of Wisconsin Dells.


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