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.

And look at what happened recently in Kingman, Ariz., where a SWAT team served a search warrant looking for a stolen gun. In footage captured by an officer’s body camera, we see a man in the house approach the front door while holding a handgun at his side. Incredibly, he refuses to drop it even while facing several officers with guns pointed at him. Even more incredibly, he managed to raise the weapon and shoot two officers before he was shot and killed. Note that in the moments before the shooting there was a call for an officer with a Taser to approach, an attempt at de-escalation that resulted in two officers being shot.

The unwarranted criticism heaped on the police over recent shootings reflects the increasingly common (but ignorant) belief that anytime an officer uses force on someone, it can only be because the officer was untrained in more peaceful means of resolving the situation or unwilling to use them. This is true regardless of the race of the various parties, but of course it is especially so when the person harmed by the police is black. In such instances, regardless of any genuine danger faced by the officer, it will be said he resorted to his firearm rather than something less lethal because of his “implicit bias,” from which no one can ever be cured.

The Times article makes the bold assertion that “de-escalation techniques can be especially useful while dealing with people who are mentally ill or emotionally disturbed, according to experts.” The alert reader will ask himself who these so-called experts are and examine their qualifications. One of the experts quoted is Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, which claims on its website that it is “a police research and policy organization and a provider of management services, technical assistance, and executive-level education to support law enforcement agencies.”

Note the organization’s title and its stated purpose, particularly their emphasis on police “executives.” It is commonly believed that the higher the rank attained by one of these police executives, the more expertise he has acquired. Police officers know that in most cases the exact opposite is true, especially as it applies to violent confrontations with criminals in the streets. People rise to executive positions within a police department by studiously avoiding these confrontations. Then, after reaching the safety afforded by higher rank, they take pride in proclaiming their expertise on matters in which they have no practical experience.

Taking this a giant, aggravating step further, the Los Angeles Police Department is headed by a five-member commission of political appointees charged with setting department policy and making final determinations on whether an officer’s use of deadly force was proper. Despite these responsibilities, there is no expectation that any commissioner have even minimal experience or training that might inform his decisions. The commissioners are selected so as to conform with some unwritten “diversity” checklist, with the result that there is always at least one black member, one Hispanic, one female, one gay, and what have you. The politics of Los Angeles being what they are, the current members are all left-leaning, some of them more so than others.

And lately, the commission has been emphasizing de-escalation in its opinions on some police shootings. A recent decision from the commission brings into stark clarity this lack of real-world experience. Last September, two uniformed LAPD officers were dispatched to a report of a woman creating a disturbance while armed with a knife. The officers drove to the location of the call, parked some 70 feet away from the woman, and got out of their car to investigate. The events that followed were captured on a nearby security camera, the video from which is available at this Los Angeles Times story. The video shows the woman advancing quickly on the officers, both of whom draw their pistols. There is no sound accompanying the video, but videos from the officers’ body-worn cameras (which were not made public) showed that the woman was ordered to drop the knife at least six times.

When the woman continued to advance while holding the knife, both officers fired. She was between four and five feet away from one officer and about ten feet from the other when she was struck by the gunfire and fell to the ground. She was taken to a hospital but died from her wounds.

To anyone with even a modest amount of police experience, this was clearly a justified shooting. The officers parked and exited their car a safe distance away from the suspect, who made the decision to close that distance quickly while holding a knife in an aggressive manner. When the woman ignored repeated commands to drop the knife, less-lethal means of subduing her, such as a Taser or pepper spray, were not practical alternatives to deadly force. Yes, it is unfortunate that the woman died, but it would have been no less unfortunate if she had stabbed one or both of the officers because they were reluctant to defend themselves as the law allows and common sense demands.

In a decision that has left LAPD officers agog, the commission ruled that the officer who was closest to the woman was “out of policy” when he shot her. Their rationale for this finding (if one can label it as such) is that the officer placed himself in a “vulnerable position.” The commission further reasoned that “Given the nature of the Subject’s advance, it should have been apparent to Officer C that his positioning was quickly becoming disadvantageous and that redeployment was warranted.”

In other words, the commissioners would have preferred that the officer run away. The commission’s full report on the incident can be found here, but don’t read it in the expectation of finding any trace of wisdom within.

Heather Mac Donald wrote recently in City Journal of the horrifying wave of violence sweeping across some neighborhoods in Chicago, and she attributes it (credibly, in my opinion) to the “Ferguson effect” and the “onslaught of criticism from the Black Lives Matter movement and its political and media enablers.” Among those enablers, lest we forget, is President Obama, who rarely passes on an opportunity to offer his uninformed opinions on what police officers should or should not have done while dealing with a resisting suspect.

Residents of other cities can be grateful their own towns have not yet descended to the dystopian depths of Chicago, but if they allow their police forces to become as enfeebled as Chicago’s has become, and as Los Angeles’s is fast becoming, there is no reason to believe they should expect different results.