The ongoing protests over racism in the United States have fueled conversations about the role of policing, including demands for officers to focus on “de-escalating” situations before they become violent.
William Terrill, a professor of criminology at Arizona State University, has studied police behavior and culture for more than 20 years, starting in the 1990s.
“It was observational then, ride-alongs with officers to see how they managed the encounter and what skill sets they used to keep things under control,” said Terrill, who also is the associate dean of interdisciplinary programs and initiatives of the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.
He’s currently in a new research project as part of a partnership with the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center. Thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security through the ASU-led Center for Accelerating Operational Efficiency (CAOE), Terrill’s research team will be examining footage from police officers’ body-worn cameras to identify how officers create positive outcomes, such as using less force and getting more cooperation.
The goal is to pinpoint patterns of behavior that can be incorporated into officer training.
Terrill answered some questions from ASU Now about police de-escalation.
Question: What is de-escalation?
Answer: De-escalation is, in simple terms, when an officer faces a suspect in a heightened state of emotion or aggression and they attempt to essentially use the least amount of force possible to calm the situation down. Often, words, or “verbal judo,” has the ability to calm the person down and get them to comply.
Starting with the 2016 President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, de-escalation has become part of the vernacular within police circles and public circles.
But it’s important to put de-escalation in the same context as escalation.
De-escalation assumes that police are going into an escalated situation already, and that does occur. But just as often, police go into a situation that’s relatively calm and it escalates from there. So it’s not just de-escalation, it’s also not letting the situation escalate.
There’s research that shows that officers can contribute to escalating a situation where it’s calm and the suspect is compliant. Maybe the officer asks for a driver’s license and the suspect asks, “What did I do?” and the officer replies, “Show me your driver’s license or I’ll mace you.” And it becomes contentious right out of the gate. The officer can contribute to the escalation as much as the citizen.
Q: Are police officers trained to de-escalate?
A: It’s always been in the training academies to some degree. In the last three or four years, it’s taken on heightened importance because the president’s task force talked about how important it was so it was worked into the training curriculum more explicitly.
Q: What did you find out about officers’ behavior during the ride-alongs?
A: Back then one of the key findings was that officers were already pretty good at de-escalating but weren’t that skilled at not escalating. So, when they came across a suspect who was resisting or noncompliant, they were pretty good at getting them to comply without using what would be considered excessive force.
Where they struggled was on the other end.
We found that in 3 out of 4 cases that escalated, the suspect was compliant and it was the officer’s behavior of adding extra verbal force or coercion.
Think of a noise complaint where they go to the house and say, “Please turn down the music.”
And what would escalate it is when the officer says, “Turn down the music or I’ll come back and do X.”
They’re throwing in that extra element of coercion that puts people on the defensive. And, especially if there’s an audience, it’s like, “I have to defend my honor.”
Q: What will you be looking at on the body-worn camera videos?
A: The thing with video is that you can slow it down and repeat it and sequence out the series of behaviors, such as, “When the suspect did X, the police did Y.”
What are the thresholds that indicate that the suspect may escalate or what did police do to escalate? There could be certain phrases used. It could be body posture.
What happens when they’re patting down someone who is showing signs of intoxication or mental illness? If there are three or four people on the scene, are emotions running high?
If someone is intoxicated and there are more than two officers on the scene, does the suspect get upset and that causes them to escalate?
We’ll be coding the videos and looking for those predictable patterns.
It’s not going to be foolproof because it’s human behavior. We’ll be looking at probability.
We’re going to look at close to 500 videos that range from two or three minutes to two to three hours. It’s a nice range from quick, easy traffic stops where they give a warning to elongated police chases.
Also, the context of what prompted the interaction is part of it. It’s everything from a suspicious person to a bank robber. Or, “We’re being dispatched by 911 to the scene” to, “We proactively decided to stop someone on our own because something is wrong.”
Q: What can lead to officers escalating a situation?
A: There’s the “disrespect factor,” which is an interesting concept that dates back 50 years.
Police officers don’t like it when they’re feeling disrespected or feel that the public doesn’t honor the badge.
When they tell you to do something, it’s, “We’re not in a negotiation here. Show me your hands or I’m going to escalate.”
Is the noncompliance of not showing hands a form of disrespect or is it posing a physical danger that requires escalation?
More times than not, it’s not a public safety threat, but the officer interprets it as such because it’s disrespectful and disrespect can prompt escalation.
“Disrespect” is a long-held fairly consistent predictor of increased force within police literature, although some of my studies don’t find it.
How do you measure noncompliance and disrespect? There is some overlap.
I can call the police officer a "pig" but if I’m putting my hands behind my back because he told me to, I’m compliant but disrespectful.
A challenge within law enforcement is “show me your hands” or “stop walking” and the suspect doesn’t do it immediately and the officer takes potential noncompliance as a threat, but it may not be a threat and it doesn’t require being thrown to the ground.
You can see countless videos on the internet of what look like minor situations where the officer escalated it.
Q: Does the probability of escalation vary according to the characteristics of the officers?
A: Not on escalation and de-escalation per se.
All those factors are studied usually in terms of, “Do they use force more or are they more likely to use a higher level of force?”
Research generally shows that more experienced officers will generally use less force than less experienced officers.
The challenge with that is how assignments are carried out. Most police organizations take the least experienced officers and put them in the most challenging environments. Officers coming right out of the academy don’t have the seniority to bid on their assignments and they end up on the night shift in high-crime districts. Those areas are more challenging because they’re more likely to get noncompliance. Like most occupations, the more senior you are, the better assignments you get.
Q: Are you glad that there’s a renewed public focus on de-escalation?
A: It is somewhat frustrating that de-escalation has taken on such a national focus and I’m saying, “Wait. The research for 20 years says the issue is not de-escalation. The issue is escalation.”
The training should be, “How do we not escalate an already calm situation?”
I do think the public has a good grip on what de-escalation means. They want the officer, when they show up, to not be overly coercive.
A lot of the perception is when you have a noncompliant suspect. A part of the skill set should be how to get them to comply without using excessive force.
What I think is not understood is the extent to which the police can escalate the situation on their own.
I do think police departments have come a long way with this.
When I was in the military police in the 1980s, part of the training when pulling someone over during a traffic stop was to not tell them why they’re being pulled over until after I get the driver’s license and registration. I was not trained to tell them why even though that will help de-escalate a situation and legitimize the stop. So it was opening the door for escalation right out of the gate.
If you go back to the noise complaint, the officer doesn’t have to threaten. Don’t frame it as, “I’m going to come back and drag you out of the apartment or mace you or tase you.” There’s no need to do that.
Q: In the overall context of reforming policing, how important is de-escalation?
A: I worry a little bit about the conversation getting narrowed down to it’s all about escalation and de-escalation. It’s dominating the public discourse right now.
It should be a key component but what it misses is how many routine encounters occur. We have nearly 800,000 police officers working across the U.S. in 16,000 separate police agencies and they handle millions and millions of encounters and the large majority of those are routine.
When you’re dealing with so many routine encounters and all of a sudden there’s a de-escalation situation, it can be hard to flip that switch.
In the ebb and flow of policing, we ask them to do so much. We ask them to be officer friendly and give directions and when there’s a shooting we ask them to handle that. The spectrum of duties is so wide. You have to be focused on a somewhat rare but crucial effect. But that’s what the job entails.
Top photo courtesy of Pixabay.