Controversies over high profile police shootings have led to a demand for de-escalation in policing. Unfortunately, in their hurry to avoid becoming the “next Ferguson,”many agencies rushed to implement new de-escalation training programs. This is a problem because there is currently no evidence surrounding de-escalation in policing and no consensus on what the term even means. Further, reforms implemented quickly without thought to how they fit within the organizational structure of the agency, or whether they will effectively address the community’s concerns, can actually cause unanticipated consequences.
Many officers, for example, view calls for de-escalation as demands that they hesitate when they really should use force. They believe this expectation will put them and others at serious risk. In public rhetoric, the term “de-escalation” seems to be a buzzword referring to any progressive tactic producing a more positive or less violent outcome. This ambiguity creates a challenge for researchers seeking to generate evidence on the topic, and for agencies balancing the requests of the public with the practical realities of their work.
A few efforts have been made to create an evidence-based definition of de-escalation. The IACP (2017)issued a National Consensus Policy on Use of Force, which viewed de-escalation as both an overarching philosophy for how the police should approach potentially violent situations, and a collection of tactics for handling situations using the least amount of force. De-escalation was conceptualized as follows:
Taking action or communicating verbally or non-verbally during a potential force encounter in an attempt to stabilize the situation and reduce the immediacy of the threat so that more time, options, and resources can be called upon to resolve the situation without the use of force or with a reduction in the force necessary. De-escalation may include the use of such techniques as command presence, advisements, warnings, verbal persuasion, and tactical repositioning (IACP, 2017, p. 2).
Based on a systematic review of de-escalation training evaluations in professions outside the criminal justice field, Engel and colleagues (2019)suggested the following definition: “[the] prevention or management of clients’ violence, aggression, agitation, or similar behaviors, based on a process designed to defuse situations and reduce the likelihood of physical or verbal confrontation between parties.”
Based on interviews with veteran officers, my colleague Dr. Michael White and I defined de-escalation as bringing a situation or citizen in crisis back to a calm state, or preventing a situation from escalating into a conflict, using the least amount of force possible (Todak & White, forthcoming). Most of the tactics described by the officers in our study were verbal – talking to the citizen as a human being and not a suspect, listening to their side of the story, engaging them in decision making, compromising in minor situations, and showing respectfulness and empathy (putting yourself in that person’s shoes).
These studies are just the beginning of the conversation, and a number of questions still need to be answered.
- What is de-escalation in policing?
- What are the goals of de-escalation for encounters, agencies, and communities?
- How is de-escalation performed (i.e. what are its tactics)?
- In what situations should these tactics be used, and when should they not be used (i.e. in what situations are these tactics unsafe or ineffective)?
More work needs to be done to reach an evidence-based definition of de-escalation. A range of stakeholders should be involved in the conversation, including experienced police officers, administrators and training personnel, members of civilian oversight boards, police experts, and the public, to name a few. And of course, once the evidence begins to accumulate and evidence-based training programs are developed, they should be rigorously evaluated in collaboration with trained researchers. Despite the good intentions of de-escalation reform proponents, and the efforts made by police agencies to make moves to reduce unnecessary use of force by their patrol officers, it is absolutely essential that these changes be grounded in evidence, and that training programs be rigorously evaluated to ensure it does not put officer and citizen lives at risk.
By Natalie Todak
This blog post was adapted from:
Todak, Natalie& Madison March. “De-escalation in policing: Preliminary answers to key questions.” McLean, Alpert and Dunham (Eds.) Critical Issues in Policing, 8thEdition.
Engel, R. S., McManus, H. D., & Herold, T. D. (2019). The deafening demand for de-escalation training: A systematic review and call for evidence in police use of force reform[Unpublished Manuscript]. Cincinnati, OH: IACP / UC Center for Police Research and Policy.
IACP. (2017). National consensus policy on use of force. Alexandria, VA: Contributing Organizations.
Todak, N., & White, M. D. (forthcoming). Expert officer perceptions of de-escalation in policing. Policing: An International Journal.