Putting the Brakes on De-escalation Expectations

Putting the Brakes on De-escalation Expectations

By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D.

I have to begin this article by saying I am 100% in favor of helping people calm themselves and voluntarily cooperate with law enforcement investigations and avoid more coercive methods involving the use of force. Most cops most of the time are good at calming and controlling and knowing the difference between the two. The clamoring for de-escalation is loud, and many of those voices belong to people who have a significant lack of knowledge about what that means.

After seeing yet another civilian bystander proclaiming that police should have de-escalated a situation involving a knife-wielding man, it is clear that police leaders and trainers must help the public and policymakers understand the reality and mythology of de-escalation.

  1. Only the individual owns their behavior

I cannot slow down the car you are driving. You have the steering wheel, the brakes, and the accelerator under your control. If you drive very slowly, or way too fast, or zig-zag crazily, or crash into a tree, that will be a result of your choices in the way you manipulate your controls based on the conditions around you and how you perceive them. A police officer can signal you to pull over, or direct you into another lane, or even put a tire deflator in your path, but they can’t drive your car.

The same is true with a person’s body. If they can choose to make the decision to resist, can they not also make the decision to comply? And, continuing the automobile analogy, even if I could take over your car or your mind, how long would it take to get the dangerous behavior to stop?

  1. Compliance is the law

There may be a few states that permit resisting arrest if the citizen knows it to be a false arrest. But even where those laws existed, the resisting citizen had to be absolutely correct and could never know what information the officer had that lead to their attempting an arrest. Everyone can find themselves in a position of fitting the description of a wanted person or vehicle near the scene of a crime. The police do not have to be correct, but they do have to be reasonable. If you’re wearing a red shirt driving a blue Subaru leaving the area where a robbery just occurred and the suspect was described as wearing a red shirt and driving a blue Subaru, you’re going to get contacted by law enforcement and with some degree of urgency. It is reasonable and required by law, to comply with their instructions.

  1. Reasonableness is the law

Police officers are Constitutionally duty-bound to be reasonable in their searches and seizures, including arrests. Reasonableness is always contextual and subjective to some degree. The legal question of reasonableness is what a reasonable person with the same knowledge and training would do in a given situation. No bystander or commentator knows what the officer making their decision knows.

  1. Timing is everything

Even police officers are often stunned by how quickly events unfold and decisions have to be made and implemented. A friend once questioned how an officer could decide to use deadly force in less than a second. He seemed shocked when I told him all decisions to use deadly force are made in less than a second. Research shows that even an unskilled person in the driver’s seat of a car can bring a weapon from out of sight and fire in less than one-quarter of a second.

  1. Science

Human behavior is seldom a completely rational decision. Most of our behavior is automatic and habitual. If we behave without consciously thinking, it follows that changing that behavior requires a highly rational thought process. Our decisions depend on what we perceive and how those sensory perceptions are filtered through our memory and learned responses. Both the citizen and the officer are limited by anatomy, biology, and physics in their actions and reactions.

No third person can determine what another person has perceived, how they are interpreting a situation, what their past patterns of behavior are, much less the actual facts of a particular chaotic event. When the fight or flight chemistry kicks in, the primitive survival brain will flood the body with biochemicals that can rule behavior for 20 minutes or more. When an officer has the time and distance to safely allow neural braking to take place, they are more likely to have success gaining compliance without significant use of force. If a person is fleeing or fighting, their chemistry will prevent them from deciding to comply with the officer for a period of time.

  1. Concurrence is not causation

Saying that police officers cause shootings is like saying surgeons cause appendicitis. The human mind is exposed to videos of police officers in deadly force situations. They see a person fleeing from or struggling with police and, along with the inevitable shocking narrative, learn to associate cops and shootings. Many believe that the mere presents of police can cause a person to fight or flee. This is often true, not because of the actions of law enforcement, but because of the perception of the subject. Disruptive persons are not likely to begin behaving lawfully if the police just promise to leave or never show up at all.

Police are criticized when a lot of them are on the scene or when they fail to call for back up. There is no statistical correlation between officer injury and suspect injury related to how many officers are present. When officers are wearing protective gear (helmets, etc) they are often accused of provocation, but the risk of injury is real and when police in so-called “riot gear” show up, that doesn’t cause a riot.

  1. Cops are very good at minimizing force.

The reality is that the police are generally very good at avoiding the use of force, including deadly force. Studies show that police officers avoid deadly force the vast majority of the times when it would be lawfully justified, and complete citizen contacts with rare uses of force.

  1. Cops are already accountable

Claims that police are not held accountable for use of force are not supportable in an age where nearly every police interaction is recorded on video. In addition to department discipline, officers face state lawsuits and criminal prosecution, and federal civil suits and criminal prosecution. Records of internal complaints and investigations are increasingly made public, and many law enforcement agencies track complaints and use of force using reporting software that alerts when potential misconduct patterns emerge.


A police officer (or social worker or counselor)  cannot control another person’s perception or body chemistry, which are the sine qua non of behavior, whether compliant or non-compliant. As one of my professors said, the assumption of rationality is, itself, irrational. So, the best we can do is to help the other person to put the brakes on their nervous system that is communicating danger from the brain to the muscles. Given the intensity of situations already in progress when the police arrive, the overwhelming prevalence of chemical influence among subjects attracting law enforcement calls and attention, and the frequent presence of bystanders creating additional tension, the public we serve deserves to know how well we are really doing.


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