Training cops to de-escalate

Can police officers be taught to defuse confrontations instead of using deadly force?

(Image credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Can police officers be taught to defuse confrontations instead of using deadly force? Here's everything you need to know:

What is de-escalation?

It's a method of policing designed to reduce shootings and other uses of force by teaching cops to act slowly, ask open-ended questions, and resist the urge to draw their guns. The average recruit receives less than 10 hours of de-escalation instruction, compared with 58 hours of firearms training, and 29 states don't require it. But de-escalation has become a top priority of police-reform advocates, who say it's crucial for reducing the 1,000 deaths at the hands of police each year, especially the roughly 40 percent involving citizens without guns. After police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back last year, leaving him paralyzed, Gov. Tony Evers called for officers to undergo annual de-escalation training. In recent weeks police departments in New Haven, Connecticut; Providence, Rhode Island; and Tempe, Arizona; have introduced de-escalation programs. Cops have been taught that they "always have to win," says Chuck Wexler, a consultant to police departments. Officers must learn to be "guardians," he said, "rather than warriors."

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What does training look like?

Cops role-play in high-stakes scenarios, with actors and experienced officers playing unhinged or threatening suspects. Trainees also study footage from real-life encounters, identifying opportunities for de-escalation. In Baltimore, where more than half of residents say they've witnessed police using excessive force, a new 16-hour de-escalation course teaches officers how to react to citizens wielding knives or attempting "suicide by cop." Rather than drawing their guns and barking orders, officers are taught to patiently talk with suspects and try to establish a rapport, maintain distance, use cover for protection, summon help, and use a Taser only if necessary. "When I say 'back away,' some police officers recoil," Wexler says. "Police are taught you never give up. In some situations it's OK to back off."

Does it work?

Though there are no national studies comparing departments, cities that employ de-escalation have seen promising results: Louisville saw a 28 percent drop in use-of-force incidents in 2019 and a 26 percent decline in citizen injuries at the hands of police. Use-of-force incidents fell 32 percent in Cleveland and 24 percent in San Francisco after officers completed de-escalation training. Police in Newark, New Jersey, didn't fire a single shot last year, which the city's public safety director credited to a de-escalation program introduced in 2018. In Camden, New Jersey — once among the nation's most violent cities — the police department has overhauled its use-of-force policies over the past seven years, and complaints of excessive force are down 95 percent.

How can cops avoid firing shots?

One way is to change the rules of engagement. Most departments authorize officers to shoot suspects with knives if they come within 21 feet, and some 100 knife-wielding people are killed by police each year. "There really is no scientific basis in that rule," said Rajiv Sethi, a Barnard College professor who studies police use of deadly force. When officers are forced to subdue a suspect, they have a range of options before drawing their firearms, including batons, beanbag guns, pepper spray, and Tasers. Police are exploring new alternatives, such as BolaWrap, which allows officers to shoot Kevlar strings, at 640 feet per second, that wrap around suspects' arms or legs and immobilize them without causing serious injury.

Why is de-escalation training controversial?

It requires officers to abandon a warrior mindset that equates citizens with enemy soldiers and crime-heavy neighborhoods with battlefields. Police training often resembles military boot camp, and police officials commonly refer to officers as "troops." The paramilitary approach was reinforced by a Defense Department program that sent surplus equipment — including grenade launchers and mine-resistant vehicles — to local law-enforcement agencies. Jeronimo Yanez, the Minneapolis cop who killed Philando Castile during a traffic stop in 2016, had previously attended a lethal-force class called "The Bulletproof Warrior." When the Los Angeles police chief announced a new award in 2015 for officers who resolved dangerous confrontations peacefully, the police union objected, saying the award valued the lives of suspects over officers.

Do cops want the new training?

Many still need to be persuaded that de-escalation won't endanger their lives. The opposite is generally true, because police are safer when there are fewer violent confrontations: After Louisville instituted de-escalation training, officer injuries dropped 36 percent. "I was trained to fight the war on crime," says former Seattle police chief Kathleen O'Toole. "We were measured by the number of arrests. Over time, I realized policing went well beyond that." A model case of de-escalation played out in April, when San Francisco police responded to an auto burglary and found a Black suspect, Marcel King, sitting in a van with a machete in hand. Rather than rushing him with guns drawn, a crisis-negotiation team spent three hours talking King into exiting the van without his machete and surrendering. "By de-escalating the situation, we got a peaceful resolution," Lt. Michael Nevin said. "No-news incidents are the great-news incidents."

Responding to mental health crises

People struggling with mental illness can present intense, unpredictable situations for first responders, and 222 people with mental illness were shot to death by police in 2018. The Memphis Police Department developed "crisis-intervention teams" in the late 1980s, and nearly 3,000 departments nationwide have followed suit. Some municipalities also are creating small units of specialists to respond to 911 calls involving the mentally ill. In Denver, a mental health clinician and a paramedic were deployed last June to respond to mental health episodes, and of 748 incidents over the first six months, none required assistance from police. De-escalation trainees study a case from Burlington, North Carolina, in which Officer Thaddeus Hines responded to a "mental crisis" and found a woman in a bedroom with a 13-inch knife. "I have been on cocaine and I'm suicidal," she screamed. "Will you let me help you?" Hines asked. "I think everybody's life is valuable." Five minutes later, the woman tossed the knife on the floor, and Hines took her for treatment without making an arrest.

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