Latest Fad in Policing: 'De-escalation'

Among the challenges faced by today’s police officers is trying to stay abreast of the latest fashions in law enforcement training. The challenge is all the greater when those fashions are dictated by politics, and greater still when adhering to them can get you killed.

Witness the latest fashion in police work: “de-escalation.” This is supposedly a novel concept that encourages officers to be more circumspect in their use of force against resisting suspects, even those who are armed with weapons. “Slow it down,” begins a recent Los Angeles Times story on the topic. “Police haven’t always been trained to think that way. They’re supposed to take immediate control of a situation, resolve the problem and move on to the next call. There are always more calls.”

The story goes on to cite last week’s killing of Alfred Olongo by a police officer in El Cajon, Calif., a suburb of San Diego. The shooting engendered several days of protests in the area, some of them violent. The clear implication of the story is that if police had but employed these de-escalation tactics with Olongo, the use of deadly force might have been averted.

If only it were that simple. Consider the options available to the officer who shot Olongo. He responded to a radio call from Olongo’s sister, who reported that the man was having some sort of mental or emotional breakdown. The officer encountered Olongo in the parking lot of a crowded strip mall, where any number of people were exposed to danger if Olongo had been armed and intent on harming someone. The officer’s first duty was to protect these innocent people, not to show deference to whatever Olongo’s mental or emotional troubles might have been.

When confronted by this lone officer, Olongo defied orders to remove his right hand from his pants pocket, a glaring red flag to any police officer. When a second officer arrived, Olongo at last removed his hand from his pocket, but did so while holding what turned out to be a metallic “vaping” device. He immediately took what can only be described as a shooting stance and pointed the device directly at the first officer, who, as anyone should have expected, shot him.

And to those who suggest some sort of de-escalation tactic should have been employed here, a question: What would you have the officer do in that moment? “Gosh,” he might say to himself, “I wonder if that thing he’s aiming at me really is a gun. I don’t want to get in trouble, so maybe I should wait for him to squeeze off a round or two before I shoot him.” Yes, it’s true that Olongo did not have a gun, but it’s also undeniable that, for reasons we will never know, his behavior in those moments before he was shot was intended to convey the impression that he did. And remember, the legal standard for judging a police officer’s use of deadly force is not whether the suspect was in fact armed, it is whether the officer had an objectively reasonable belief that the suspect presented an imminent threat of death or serious injury to the officer or to someone else. Any cop who says he wouldn’t have shot Olongo in that instant is either a liar or a fool.

Where in this scenario was the opportunity to “slow it down,” as the L.A. Times story urges? Yes, the officer might have waited for his backup to arrive before confronting Olongo. Indeed, he might have waited for two or three more officers, perhaps with each of them equipped with some type of less-lethal device. But if in those added minutes Olongo had continued to roam the area and harmed some unsuspecting passerby, some of the same people who today are calling the officer a “murderer” would be faulting him for placing his own safety over that of the public. Certainly there are times when officers have the opportunity to proceed more deliberately, but this was not one of them.