De-Escalation Works, But US Law Enforcement Hasn't Show Much Interest In Trying It

from the shoot-first,-answer-questions-72-hours-later... dept

Deescalation isn't something most police officers want to talk about -- especially those who allow their unions to do all their talking for them. But shootings by police have achieved critical mass, forcing the issue to be confronted by law enforcement officials. There are no national guidelines for force deployment. Local law enforcement agencies don't have much in the way of best practices or standards, pretty much allowing officers to decide how much force is necessary on their own, relative to the amount of "reasonable fear" officers can later credibly swear to in court.

Cities and police departments may be forced to confront this sooner, rather than later, if for no other reason than to limit the bleeding -- both literally and metaphorically. Civil rights lawsuits are filed daily and settlement amounts continue to escalate. Officers in the US kill ~1,000 people per year, with that number being completely untethered from the "safety" of the job -- at least as compared to violent crime rates and/or officers being killed in the line of duty. Generally speaking, there's less crime in America than there has been for decades, but cops are "fearing for their safety" like it's 30 years ago.

Over the past several days, police station CCTV video of a Bangkok police officer disarming a knife-wielding man has gone viral. Instead of greeting a threat with violence, Officer Anirut Malee greeted the potential attack with words… and neutralized the threat completely with a hug.

For this act of bravery, Officer Malee was given an award by Thailand's national police chief. And he's become the unofficial poster boy for deescalation. Every situation is unique, some will argue, and what worked here won't work for every person wielding a weapon. This is true, but in the US almost every situation involving a mentally disturbed person carrying a weapon is handled the same way: with a deployment of force, most of it deadly. So, arguments about nuance are worthless in a law enforcement climate where officers are allowed to calm their nerves by firing guns.

And the situation above really isn't that unique. A recent controversial killing involved mental distress and wielded knife. Only this one happened in Seattle, and ended in the shooting death of a pregnant woman.

It's not as though the officers went into the situation unprepared. They were responding to Charleena Lyle's call to report a burglary. Audio recordings of the officers included discussions about her mental health issues and previous police interactions. And the seemingly-inevitable shooting was preceded by cops telling Lyle they weren't going to shoot her. This shooting took place under a DOJ consent decree meant to curb the use of excessive force by Seattle officers. It doesn't necessarily indicate the decree isn't working, but it definitely doesn't suggest the Seattle PD is approaching these sorts of situations with deescalation in mind.

It's almost impossible to imagine a US law enforcement officer approaching a situation like that confronting Officer Malee without a weapon drawn and a whole lot of shouting. There's very little reason for officers to change their approach -- not with courts continually deferring to assertions of fear by police officers and cops who do deescalate situations being fired for supposedly endangering other officers.

But the problem isn't just going to go away. Cities and PDs need to address this now, if for nothing other than purely mercenary reasons. It costs money to defend lawsuits and more money to pay settlements. Even if officials don't really care whether the police maintain a healthy relationship with the communities they serve, they can't keep asking taxpayers to pay for the sins of government employees -- not when there appears to be little effort made by these employees to improve the level of their service.

Filed Under: de-escalation, police, policing

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 Jul 2017 @ 2:52pm

    To be fair

    This officer had about a 6 inch height advantage and the frail guy was probably 50 lb less than the police officer. Even when the cop sits down, he's still taller than the man with a knife. The invader couldn't have been less intimidating if he was a 13 yr old girl with a knife.

    I give the officer full kudos for how he handled it. I just think a cop that panics when faced with a 23 yr old man who is bigger and stronger than him might think this situation to be an unfair comparison.

    (To be clear - I am not saying that cops are justified in being rougher with larger citizens. I'm just saying that it's probably more challenging for an officer to remain calm when faced with someone more physically intimidating.)

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