Originally published on the Force Science Institute website. Republished here with permission.
Since officers routinely talk people into handcuffs, there are clearly situations where officers can slow down and help others de-escalate. But de-escalation is not always a reasonable option and distinguishing between force options is never easy.
Officers faced with potential violence are immediately confronted with priority of life considerations. Although officer safety is important, it cannot be the top priority or else officers would simply not respond to dangerous calls. Instead, officers are expected to assume reasonable risk as they carry out their duties: first to protect the public and then to save suspects from the consequences of their own behavior.
With public safety as the top priority, officers first look to create and maintain reasonable security conditions. When not confronted with imminent threats, they are able to use discretionary time to gather additional information, bring resources to the scene, and set the conditions for effective de-escalation.
In this article, we’ll look at these conditions for effective de-escalation: containment, control, contact and communication. Understanding how these conditions impact de-escalation allows officers and those responsible for police accountability to fairly assess the situation confronting the police and any use of force decisions made in response.
No matter which side of the police reform movement they’re on, every organization hoping to increase de-escalation and reduce “police violence” advocates for containment.
Sometimes referred to as a “zone of safety,” containment is the creation and enforcement of boundaries that limit a suspect’s movements to a specific area. Containment areas are defined by where a suspect is allowed to remain without placing officers or the public at unreasonable risk. As circumstances change, these areas can expand or contract at the discretion of the officers.
A person is contained only when the officer has the ability and willingness to enforce the boundaries. The boundaries may be physical obstructions that can sufficiently block movement or may be created by an officer’s actual or threatened use of force.
Perimeters may result in containment, but only if officers are able to enforce the perimeter boundaries. At times, it may be reasonable to follow a suspect and allow them to decide where and when to move, but this is not containment—it is mobile surveillance.
Containment allows officers to protect public safety, while still offering the suspect a reasonable area of movement. What makes an area of movement “reasonable” is more than just the ability to respond to sudden attacks. Containment improves officers’ ability to prevent sudden attacks, avoid split-second decision-making, and maintain response options—including the ability to prevent escapes and manage appropriate backstops if force is used.
To protect public safety, officers are authorized to exercise unquestioned command of these dynamic scenes—and with this authority, establishing containment is a top priority. But containment alone may not be enough. For officers to safely slow down and focus on noncoercive de-escalation, the suspect must be reasonably controlled.
Even when a suspect is contained, ongoing criminal conduct and access to weapons, evidence and means of escape must still be considered before choosing to delay a forcible response in favor of de-escalation.
It doesn’t matter that a suspect’s freedom of movement has been limited if they are engaged in active assaults, property damage or evidence destruction. In these cases, officers are expected to establish sufficient scene control to ensure that serious crimes are prevented or stopped before engaging in verbal de-escalation. Of course, the challenge is knowing what crimes your agency, court and community consider serious enough to justify using force, and, as discussed in a previous article, that’s not always clear.
What is clear, is that an officer’s decision to talk or force compliance is directly tied to their agency and community’s willingness to support that decision. As a result, when a person is only threatening their self, or where criminal conduct is minor, the decision to delay force in favor of de-escalation may remain the most reasonable response.
The first two conditions for de-escalation—containment and control—concern whether an officer should attempt de-escalation. The final two—contact and communication—address whether an officer can effectively influence de-escalation.
Contact as a condition for de-escalation means that both the officer and the suspect are willing and able to engage in verbal de-escalation.
Communication is most effective when the receiver not only understands the words but can hear the subtle changes in voice, interpret facial expressions and perceive body language. Certain causes of agitation can prevent accurate perception and interpretation of messages. Psychological, emotional or neurological impairment can make communication and persuasion difficult and sometimes impossible.
Knowing how these conditions affect de-escalation options will ensure that officers and those responsible for police accountability are recognizing the same situation.
Even without these disabilities, some people will experience sensory impairment and not be able to see, hear or understand the officer because of drug use, physical limitations, environmental distractions or distance. Here again, officers who are encouraged to create distance and find cover should do so only after considering how these actions may impede verbal de-escalation and persuasion.
Although officers are not expected to diagnose agitation, they should notice when the agitated person appears to be unable, unwilling or actively resisting verbal de-escalation. When those under the influence of anger or contempt ignore the officer or intentionally escalate the situation, officers should consider whether they can establish the contact necessary for effective communication.
Effective crisis communication requires a high level of emotional intelligence, patience and skill—persuasive communication even more so. It is only reasonable to expect officers to accept risk, delay force and attempt verbal de-escalation after they’ve been sufficiently trained to that task.
What counts as “sufficiently trained” depends on what agencies and communities expect from their officers. It may be sufficient that officers simply learn non-escalation strategies, or basically how not to unnecessarily agitate people.
But for those who expect more from their officers, start by comparing your officer’s communication and crisis intervention training with that received at crisis call-centers. One prominent Long Island crisis center, for example, requires hotline workers to receive a minimum of 160 hours of training. That’s simply to talk on the phone without the additional concerns for personal or public safety.
From the beginning of this series, I’ve continued to emphasize that de-escalation is not something you do to a person. Non-coercive de-escalation is recognizing, creating and maintaining conditions that allow someone to de-escalate their own emotions. An honest assessment of de-escalation will admit that not everybody police meet is able or willing to de-escalate. De-escalation requires cooperation.
Beyond “Whenever Possible and Appropriate”
When officers are faced with critics who simply conclude, “the officer should have de-escalated,” they should pull those critics into the deep water of use of force analysis. Invite them to confront the uncertainty, the complexity and the competing responsibilities officers face. Be prepared to discuss how an officer’s responsibility to the public first requires them to establish reasonable containment and control, and that without contact and communication, verbal de-escalation can be an unreasonable expectation.
In the end, law enforcement remains accountable for their decisions, and it is reasonable that they avoid force when they can safely accomplish their mission without it. But some police use of force, even deadly force, is inevitable. When officers are facing violence, they deserve more guidance than “de-escalate whenever possible and appropriate.” Now they have it.
1. When officers delay the use of force so that they can attempt de-escalation, it is because they believe officers and the public are not at unreasonable risk. The moment a suspect is allowed to break containment, that balance of risk can shift. When force is used to maintain containment, officers are often evaluated on whether the suspect posed an imminent threat in that moment. But when officers use force to stop someone from breaking containment, they should consider all of the legitimate law enforcement goals that containment supported in the first place. Officers use containment to allow for visual assessment of the suspect; allow for threat assessments; improve opportunities to identify weapons; find, use and maintain available cover; improve their position; freeze the scene while additional resources are brought to the scene, including force options; avoid potential crossfire; identify, establish, and maintain safe backdrops; accurately communicate with responding units; coordinate with other officers; minimize escape routes; deny access to potential victims; and deny access to barricaded positions or other tactical advantages for the suspect.
2. In some jurisdictions, property damage, even jumping up and down on police cars, is an insufficient reason to use force without first attempting de-escalation. As social justice and police reform efforts continue, some critics evaluate police not by what is legal, but by what is preventable, with one controversial critic going so far as to suggest that to prevent police shootings, officers need to stop chasing suspects with guns. If your only goal is to shoot fewer people, it is hard to argue with that logic.