Black people are about three times more likely than white people to be killed by a police officer. Outrage over this long-running and relentless situation boiled over in the summer of 2020, with people across the U.S. taking to the streets to protest the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others. The demonstrations—which themselves were largely peaceful—have involved notable incidents of police violence toward protesters. These events have further amplified questions about officers’ use of force and one of the most popular strategies aimed at reducing it: de-escalation.
The 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and the surge of civil unrest that followed prompted then president Barack Obama to assemble the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. A resulting report called for nationwide changes in law enforcement, with the aim of promoting “effective crime reduction while building public trust.” De-escalation was one strategy that subsequently gained many new followers.
Although the approach is widely employed to reduce violence and aggression in health care and mental health settings, its application for law enforcement is poorly defined. In a policing context, de-escalation aims to decrease the use of force against civilians by teaching officers techniques to slow things down and use time, space and communication to find an alternative—practices that run counter to much law-enforcement training. Police are traditionally taught to make decisions and act as quickly as possible. And they learn early on that society not only authorizes but sometimes expects them to use force as a means of coercion.
Unlike strategies that specifically target discrimination—from the racial sensitivity training adopted in the 1980s to more recent implicit bias training—de-escalation is touted by proponents as a means of reducing violence across the board. The approach, they say, protects civilians and officers alike and enables police to peacefully manage crowds of protesters.
De-escalation has become one of the types of training most frequently requested by police departments in recent years, says Robin Engel, a professor at the University of Cincinnati’s School of Criminal Justice. A recent CBS News poll of 155 departments indicates that at least 71 percent of them offer some form of de-escalation training, although it is not always mandatory. But U.S. news outlets have reported numerous, often startling stories of police violence against individuals and groups of protesters across the country. Many departments in cities where such uses of force have taken place—including those in Seattle and Phoenix (neither of which responded to requests for comment)—require their officers to undergo training in de-escalation. So why does it often break down?
De-Escalation is not enough
In 2016 Campaign Zero—a law-enforcement reform initiative developed by Black Lives Matter activists—helped to conduct an analysis of 91 police departments in the largest U.S. cities. The study found that de-escalation mandates were associated with lower rates of police killings and fewer officers being killed or assaulted in the line of duty—even after accounting for a number of departmental and social factors. Although a review of cross-disciplinary research on de-escalation found that such training probably has slight-to-moderate benefits and few drawbacks, much of the research has methodological weaknesses—including a lack of control groups, dependence on correlational designs and use of self-reporting rather than observation-based data. Thus, despite promising early findings, Engel argues that there is not yet enough systematic research about de-escalation in policing to show it is effective or to guide its use.
But what is increasingly clear, she says, is that even effective de-escalation training is probably an insufficient solution if it is used on its own. “We know that training alone doesn’t change behavior,” Engel says. “So you need a strong use-of-force policy that emphasizes the use of de-escalation tactics. And you need to couple that with accountability and supervisory oversight—and then add in the training component. Agencies that have been doing [these things] are [anecdotally] reporting success.” Similarly, Campaign Zero reports that the departments with the lowest rates of police killings and officer deaths employed four or more of the organization’s 8 Can’t Wait strategies aimed at reducing the use of force. In addition to de-escalation mandates, this campaign calls for measures such as banning choke holds and changing how the use of force is reported.
Still, measures seeking to reduce the violence—or the unevenness in how it is carried out—without addressing its root cause may be seen as inauthentic. For example, law-enforcement officials in some cities have marched and knelt alongside protesters. Such actions—viewed by many as a show of solidarity—have served to de-escalate heated situations, but some question the sincerity of these gestures.
“De-escalation is a code word for pacification,” says Christen Smith, an associate professor of anthropology and African and African diaspora studies at the University of Texas at Austin. “Policing in the Americas uses code words in order to try to frame violent actions as something less violent than what they really are,” adds Smith, who researches state violence in the region, with focuses on Brazil and the U.S. She contends that calls for de-escalation training—especially in the absence of more comprehensive change—can be used as a political tool to “gift wrap violence in a prettier package” rather than a method to reconfigure the system to keep communities safe in ways that feel equitable.
Some activists and law-enforcement officials say it may be possible to change police departments—or the criminal justice system itself—to accomplish that goal. Indeed, the communities that have demonstrated success have taken a comprehensive approach to reducing police violence. The police department in Camden, N.J., for example, was disbanded and rebuilt with a new vision in 2013.
“We try to meet the community before anything is an emergency, before there is a crisis,” says Camden police captain Zsakhiem R. James. “We partner with the community, so we’re not seen as an occupying force.” In addition to such engagement—which sometimes means hosting and attending barbecues and block parties—the department now has a strict and clear use-of-force policy, as well as extensive and ongoing training in de-escalation. This training includes scripts and virtual role-playing, along with thorough oversight procedures such as monitored body cameras, James says. What is more, he adds, the department has a deep commitment to this different approach to policing. “This entire department is community-based,” he says. “If you can’t abide by our policies, you just don’t need to work here. People employed by us and working for us must abide by it.”
This type of multipronged strategy to address state-authorized violence and change the face of policing in the U.S. has been gaining traction. Minneapolis has vowed to dismantle its own police department and replace it with a community-led alternative. And state and national lawmakers have introduced bills that would restrict the use of force, increase civilian oversight and develop tracking systems for officer misconduct. On June 3, 2020, the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP) released several recommendations to local, state and national officials that integrate immediate interventions (including de-escalation) aimed at reducing the use of force with system-wide accountability and steps toward structural change.
“Law enforcement is the dumping ground. When you don’t know who to call, you call the cops,” says former police officer Kyle Kazan, who is now a speaker for LEAP. “You have to take a step back and ask, ‘What does society need law enforcement for?’ We need to rethink how we handle society’s challenges.” He argues that ending the War on Drugs, increasing funding for dedicated social workers and outreach workers, and ensuring that officers are held liable for their actions within and across departments would better position law enforcement to help communities.
Such interventions, as well as the movement to defund the police, start to address one of Smith’s major critiques of a reformist approach that stops at training. “There’s a deep-rooted connection between the way that we understand justice in this country, white supremacy and anti-Blackness,” she says, noting that modern policing in the U.S. grew, in part, out of slave patrols in the South. “How do you undo that culture? As anthropologists, we know that the only way cultures die is when they disappear into history because of some catastrophic event [such as the collapse of a nation or descent into civil war]. What our generation is tasked with is trying to figure out a way to dismantle this culture without a catastrophic event.”