Written by Michelle Henderson – December 14, 2020

Are your officers receiving regular and current de-escalation of force training?

With active shooters regularly making headlines, communities are calling for law enforcement to rethink the training their officers receive on use of force, specifically de-escalation strategies and tactics. Studiesͣ have found that agencies training new recruits spend an average of 58 hours on firearms training, 49 hours on defensive tactics, and only 8 hours on de-escalation, crisis intervention, and electronic control weapons. Police academies often begin training officers on the mechanics of using firearms, while use of force, de-escalation and crisis intervention strategies are not covered until weeks later, usually in separate sessions. Officers should be trained to consider all of their options in realistic exercises that mirror the types of incidents they will encounter, such as persons with a mental illness behaving erratically or dangerously on the street.

In a ground-breaking 1989 decision by the US Supreme Court, Graham v. Connor provided broad standards for what police officers can do legally in potential use of force situations. However, it did not provide specific guidance on what officers should do. It is up to individual police agencies to determine how to incorporate the Court’s principles into their own policies and training. The Graham decision offers little guidance on how police agencies should develop their policies, strategies, tactics, and training to include the ever-expanding world of use of force. The Graham decision gives individual police agencies the leeway to incorporate those principles into their policies and training as they see fit, correctly instructing officers daily on how to perform their duties. The question is not, ‘Can you use deadly force?’ The question is, ‘Did you absolutely have to use deadly force?’ … And the decisions leading up to the moment when you fired a shot ultimately determine whether you had to or not.

As most law enforcement organizations know, there are more effective ways to respond to many threats than through a use of force continuum. Typically officers are trained to evaluate the situation as a whole: look beyond the fact that a suspect has a knife and to assess the actual threat posed by the knife. This type of rapid processing involves asking questions like:

  • Does the subject appear to have a mental illness?
  • Is the subject threatening anyone other than himself?
  • Is the subject using the knife in an aggressive, offensive manner (striking out and moving toward the officer or others) or a defensive manner (holding the knife close to himself, and brandishing it only if the officer tries to get close to the person)?

Depending on the threat assessment, officers are expected to make split decisions based on the range of options available to them. For example, if the person appears to be mentally ill, possibly suicidal, and acting defensively, not offensively, officers may call in additional personnel and/or resources to safely contain the person. All the while, the officer is trying to talk to him, ask him questions about what is going on in his mind, and buy time to give the person numerous chances to calm down, talk to the officers, build trust and rapport, and ultimately to drop the knife. Evaluating a situation and considering options as circumstances rapidly change is not a permission slip to move to a higher level of force if lower force options prove ineffective. Instead it means finding the most effective and safest response that is proportional to the threat. Continued reliance on rigid use of force continuums does not support this type of thinking.

What is your organization’s policy on use of force? How do your officers currently train to combat these types of fast-moving situations? Click here to learn more about judgmental virtual training and the options available on the use of force continuum.