By Dr. Joel F. Shults
Despite the notion among police critics that things always get worse when the cops show up, police officers are generally quite competent and experienced in getting situations stabilized and calmer. Unrealistic expectations result in the persistent question and critique – “Why didn’t they de-escalate?” The answer to that question consists of two factors: time and distance.
Time is an essential element of de-escalation. Consensus among psychologists is that it takes 20-30 minutes for the adrenaline chemicals associated with fight/flight to dissipate in the body. That presumes that there are no ongoing stressors that continue to ignite the body’s stress response that keeps the chemistry coursing through it. There is a complex series of brain activity required for making a decision to change behavior, known as neural braking. The brain’s survival (fight/flight) centers have the authority to overwrite the rational thinking part of the brain, so it takes time to shift from survival mode to rational decision-making.
This is an internal process governed by what is perceived through the body’s senses. If a person has the capacity to return to rational decision making (retreat, calming, compliance) it takes the ticking of the clock to do so.
A police officer – or mental health responder – entering into a crisis situation can only act in ways that give time and rationale for a person to cease the disruptive behavior that gave rise to the 911 call bringing them into the scenario. This assumes a degree of rationality on the subject’s part. A police officer cannot know immediately if the person is rational or, if under the influence of drugs or psychosis, is processing what the officer is communicating or is hallucinating that the person intervening is a giant cockroach or some kind of murderous demon.
A second essential in de-escalation is the proximity of the subject to others. If the subject is close enough to others, or can escape to be in proximity to others, to present a threat of some type of assault in their agitated state, the police officer may not have the luxury of time for the sake of protecting themselves or others.
Questions of why an officer failed to use less lethal force can often be answered by the demands of time and distance. Even deadly force with multiple rounds fired is no guarantee that a dangerous suspect can be immediately stopped. The TASER, for example, can be thwarted if the probes are not aligned in a way that produces the effective shot to immobilize an active aggressor.
Although not considered de-escalation in common parlance the use of force, including deadly force is, in fact, de-escalation if it stops the aggressiveness of a threat. It is at the top of the de-escalation continuum, reminiscent of the classic use of force continuum. To say that the use of force is a failure of de-escalation is not accurate if such use stops the escalating or continuing behavior of a threat.
The term de-escalation first appears in the 1960s but became a widely used term only within the last decade, and especially since 2015 in the aftermath of high-profile incidents involving police. The term has taken on a mythical quality with the assumption that it is always an option for law enforcement short of deadly force. Perhaps law enforcement should help the public understand that what we include under the umbrella of de-escalation two categories: internal and external. Internal efforts are when an officer, or other bystander, guides a person in their internal process of neural braking, providing time and distance to allow a person to make the decision to cease their disruptive behavior. Manipulating another person’s mental process of deciding to alter their behavior is an inexact science, the outcome of which in not predictable with any certainty, and ultimately entirely dependent on the disruptive person.
External de-escalation is the application of forcible efforts to stop or alter behavior. This ranges from hands-on restraint to less lethal force to deadly force. While efforts to guide a subject to engage in neural braking through a variety of negotiation tactics that are used routinely by police should be a priority, the process may culminate in a lawful and reasonable external control. A broader and more rational understanding of the unfortunate term de-escalation is vital for the public at large and for the police culture as well.
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About the author
Dr. Joel Shults is a retired Chief of Police who served in Colorado. He earned a doctorate degree in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri and holds a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and a bachelors degree in criminal justice from the University of Central Missouri. Over the course of his 30-year law enforcement career he has served as an academy instructor, chaplain, community relations officer and investigator. Joel Shults operates Street Smart Training and is the founder of the National Center for Police Advocacy. His latest book The Badge and the Brain is available at www.joelshults.com.