To Act or Not to Act: The Status of Incident De-Escalation in 2019

by Ariel Benjamin Mannes | Jun 14, 2019 | Public IntegrityPublic SafetySecurity

To Act or Not to Act: The Status of Incident De-Escalation in 2019

De-escalation has become a somewhat controversial term in a law-related context; it makes up a body of techniques which have fallen under scrutiny as the discipline of public safety, as a whole, has become “inundated with public criticism, political posturing, and ‘expert’ dissection of tactics.”

Much of this phenomenon — particularly the latter — has been ineffective and even detrimental to the public image of a security or law enforcement agency, and de-escalation has mostly suffered at the hands of subsequent wedge arguments and distractions steering public perception away from a vital key point: public safety and law enforcement officers are, in nearly all cases, properly trained and primarily focused on diffusing a situation quickly and in a manner that will minimize harm or disruption.

This effect has left some officers in a difficult position during volatile situations; do they act in a proven manner that may save lives, or do they first focus on whether or not the technique in question “looks bad” or is physically necessary?

In the split-second heat of the moment, indecision can yield devastating consequences, and in 2019, the question itself is perhaps harder than ever to address.

Defining the “proper” approach

InPublicSafety points to de-escalation as “a reduction of the level or intensity” of a dangerous or otherwise elevated situation; it almost always refers to adverse or demanding circumstances that leave little time for contemplation. The situation may involve an active shooter, a grief-stricken parent at an accident scene, or a poorly received traffic citation — at the end of the day, the principle of “achieve stability as quickly or effectively as possible” remains constant.

That said, officers are obviously expected to follow the use of force continuum received in their training as well as certain ethical guidelines rooted, in part, on the type of de-escalation warranted by the situation. Many of these distinctions are obvious — active shooter protocol differs starkly from that in a minor car accident scene diffusion — but it is key to pinpoint what is applicable, thus mitigating the risk of the perception of overreaction or mishandling (which itself can quickly produce public misconceptions, media firestorms, and other adverse reactions bent on exacerbating an already non-ideal scenario); in the age of out-of-context video clips becoming the viral court of public opinion.

This leads professionals to ponder, generally speaking, what is “proper” de-escalation? Today, this is the tightrope that many officers traverse during their day-to-day responsibilities. Do they approach with immediate discretion, compassion, or general restraint? Should they exercise force or allow negotiation to play out? There are grey areas, but the public must come to terms with the fact that, in clear cut situations such as active shooter threats, officers are trained to follow a single plan generally rooted in public safety (in this case, to neutralize to seek out and neutralize the threat).

Meeting an unclear standard

In recent months, many police forces have received calls for tighter “reasonableness” standards placed on their officers — those pertaining to so-called “lawful, but awful” interactions, where officers are forced to use deadly force and are promptly lambasted for how the scene looks to the public. Many advocates of these standards are calling for an increased emphasis on “proper” de-escalation” techniques in lieu of a perceived knee-jerk violent response.

However, with all of the aforementioned in mind, these demands have only put unnecessary pressure on officers, who are already expected to navigate harrowing conditions on a regular basis; and all of it is conforming to an unclear standard. There is no blanket approach to de-escalation — otherwise, all applicable crises would be exactly the same.

Such legislation is indicative of a broader societal disconnect. We must hold our police forces accountable so they can do their jobs correctly and fairly, but imposing foundationless standards with no clear alternative solution, while possibly logical on the surface, is a slippery slope; it only complicates an already complicated process and potentially puts more citizens in harm’s way

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