Force and De-Escalation

Force & De-Escalation

Law Enforcement’s “F” Word: Correcting the Dialogue Steven M Sheridan Jeff Golden

Public opinion impacts how effectively law enforcement can do its job, and the media heavily dictates the tone of that conversation. These two factors have combined to create a perfect storm: law enforcement’s use of force policies and procedures are being scrutinized to a degree never before seen. Many departments are examining this phenomenon; however, few are looking at language as the root of the problem.

Prior to the mid-20th century, law enforcement was considered a trade; today, it is recognized as a profession. This transition has been accomplished through required continuing education, accreditation programs, and an emphasis on training, among other factors. However, law enforcement officers and leadership are still speaking a tradesman language; our terminology is vague, out of date and not accurate. This has a significant impact on how today’s police officer interacts with members of the public. So how do we address this problem?

First, we must properly define the prominent terms we use. We’ll start with the word force. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines force as “power or violence used on a person or thing,” and we see the word force again in several common definitions for violence. These words are clearly associated with each other; knowing that, one can understand the public’s unease with law enforcement’s use of the word force in describing how citizen interactions are managed.

Law enforcement officers are trained to respond to resistance through ONLY de-escalation techniques. Our training does NOT teach the use of violence. Violence is chaotic and unpredictable – the police can be neither.  They are trained to respond with precision of action.

This is an essential distinction with serious consequences that affect officers, departments and the municipalities that hire and insure them. An important consequence is a negative public reaction and a loss of trust, especially after a legitimate de-escalation technique is used — regardless of whether the response was in complete compliance with policies and procedures. Understand, the officer has been trained to use everything on his/her belt to de-escalate.  No where in our training are we taught to kill. We are taught to stop, reduce, or minimize the threat – the very definition of de-escalation.

Consider the common definitions of the term de- escalation – to decrease in extent, volume, or scope or to reduce the level or intensity of something/someone (Miriam Webster). In the simplest terms, law enforcement officers are trained to prevent, reduce and/or stop resistance during every encounter.

When we look at a generic Use of Force Continuum or Response to Resistance Continuum, most of our time, energy and resources are on training skills for physical control and deadly response (deadly force); little to none is spent on skills to effectively use officer presence and verbal communication, which are the only continuous aspects throughout every contact for almost every officer.  As such, we have allowed fringe groups and the media to convince the nation law enforcement is not trained to de-escalate – Nonsense! The entire continuum is about de-escalation; at each point we are trying to prevent the person from becoming agitated or trying to reduce their resistance. This being clarified, we do need more documented time and practice regarding Verbal de-escalation.

De-escalation is the process which embodies the very core of police work. It is embedded in the way we train and the way in which we operate.  De-escalation is the process of ensuring we minimize, diffuse, or reduce the level of anxiety, emotion, or resistance we may encounter.  This is accomplished through the understanding and use of many de-escalation tools to include: presence, communication, empty hand response, less lethal tools (oc, baton, taser, etc), and lethal responses/tools.  We can only verbally de-escalate when it is safe to do so, but this does not mean the other responses are not designed to de-escalate.  We must be allowed to use the appropriate de-escalation tool for the circumstances at hand.  Once we understand this as a profession and a nation, we will be able to better serve our citizens and communities.

Studies show changing a single word in a sentence will change how the sentence is interpreted and most importantly, how both parties respond. Knowing this, are we properly describing our response process when we include the word force? Has our constant training in and reiteration to the public about our use of force helped us or hurt us?

To advance as a profession and rebuild relationships with the public, law enforcement must revisit its terminology. De-escalation should be used to describe all positions in the response continuum, including presence, communication, empty hands, less lethal tools, intermediate tools and lethal response. Words have power, and law enforcement must step up to set the correct tone instead of ceding that responsibility to the media and the public. We must do a better job of articulating exactly what we do.

Stay safe.


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