The Folly of Police 'De-Escalation'

If you have a job, you most likely have had this experience. And if your job is within a large corporate or government bureaucracy, there is simply no escape from it.

First comes the email, a glance at the subject of which fills you with a sense of dark foreboding. Opening the email, you learn that you’ve been instructed to clear your calendar on a given day so as to attend a “career development seminar.” Or perhaps in your place of employment they call it “continuing education” or “in-service training.” Whatever the term, to you it’s a call to drudgery, for without even examining the syllabus you know you’re in for an excruciating day of lectures and PowerPoint presentations, all of it delivered by someone who, based on nothing more than his own overinflated sense of worth, believes he can perform your job better than you can.

When the appointed day arrives, there having been no earthquake, fire, flood, or other disaster that would have offered you an excuse to give it a miss, you report as instructed and take your seat among your fellow sufferers. You look at the clock, the hands of which for the next eight hours will move more slowly than you had hoped. When at last you are dismissed, you file out of the room hoping that you appeared no more uninterested in the material than anyone else had been lest you find yourself on some list of those who “don’t embrace the vision.” And you wonder, just for a fleeting moment, how much time you might have to serve in prison if you were to kill that coworker of yours who, when the instructor said, “If there are no more questions you leave a little early,” actually did raise his hand and, oblivious to the pain he was causing, actually did ask a question.

Once you’ve attended a few of these training sessions you come to realize that, regardless of the purported topic, they’re all pretty much the same. And you also realize there is little to be gained from offering your opinion on the matters under discussion. If anyone valued your opinion, it would be you standing at the front of the room. No, best to keep your mouth shut and let your name on the attendance roster be the only evidence you were even there.

Learning this too late was one unfortunate police officer in Seattle who, in a fit of excessive candor during a training session, let it slip that he did something that might have saved his life but was nonetheless frowned upon by the enlightened leadership of the Seattle Police Department. The intent of the training was to emphasize “de-escalation” in contacts with the public, this in the hope that officers will resort to physical force less often when making arrests. The training was mandated by the U.S. Justice Department, under whose supervision the Seattle Police Department now operates in accordance with a consent decree.

If the general principle of remaining silent but offering the occasional nod of feigned agreement during training sessions was lost on this officer, he still should have been made cautious by the presence of a reporter and a photographer from the New York Times. The Times story they produced ran on June 27 under the headline “Long Taught to Use Force, Police Warily Learn to De-escalate.” It opens with the dubious proposition that it is police officers’ behavior and not that of the the people they are contacting that dictates whether or not an encounter will turn violent. The instructor, Officer Corey Papinsky, offers the current thinking among the department brass on how to handle field contacts. Approaching someone with your hands on a weapon or making too much eye contact could unnecessarily escalate a situation, says Papinsky. “Keep your hands visible at all times.”