Realistic De-Escalation: Balancing Risk

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(Part 2a)

After 30 years of crisis counseling, de-escalation, negotiation, and persuasion, I’m convinced few things require as much skill as talking dangerous people into handcuffs.

But, regardless of an officer’s skill, when the risk of delay is too great, there may be no time for de-escalation. In those cases, if an officer uses force, they’ll need to know how that decision will be evaluated…and by whom.

In this article, we’ll continue to bridge the gap between de-escalation and use of force. Our focus will not be on the amount or type of force being used. Instead, we will look closely at the factors that affect the timing and purpose of the force.

Readers familiar with use of force decision-making know that even expert threat assessments are little more than educated “best-guesses.” And that tactical decisions, including the decision to use force, require a quick calculation of the risk of action against the risk of delay.

This balancing of risk is the foundation of use of force decisions. It’s also one of the most controversial aspect of policing—so let’s start there.

Balancing Risk

In use of force cases, when we ask officers to “balance risk,” we are usually asking them to balance mission accomplishment against physical danger. But balancing risk is more than threat assessments and response options. It is the balancing of an individual’s “right to be left alone” against society’s need to protect government interests.1

But who decides which government interests are most important—and have they told the police?

When officers make decisions believing crime reduction or officer safety are their top priorities, they may be shocked when legally justified shootings result in protests, riots, or calls for indictments. That’s because the official and unofficial review of these decisions often involve people with an entirely different set of priorities. Unless we recognize these competing interests, we will continue to talk past each other—with one side arguing threat assessments and tactical superiority—and the other demanding that the police slow down, “de-escalate,” and use force only as a last resort.

We don’t have to agree with one side or the other, but to fairly judge the reasonableness of an officer’s decision, we must know which government interest the officer was trained to prioritize. Unfortunately, as traditional “law and order” policing continues to interact with modern “social justice” theories, the government’s priorities aren’t always clear—and it’s the individual officer who pays for the uncertainty.

Law and Order Meets Social Justice

To effectively judge de-escalation and use of force decisions, it helps to understand the tension between “law and order” and “social justice.”

As applied to police, “law and order” broadly refers to the government’s interest in public safety, law enforcement, and public order.2 Although law and order interests are familiar to most readers, they are not the only government interests that society seeks to promote, and they are not the only standards by which police are judged.

In addition to traditional “law and order” interests, special interests are increasingly promoted for the benefit of more vulnerable populations. Two of the most notable efforts include mental health crisis response and the government’s broader effort to achieve “social justice.”

Through the social justice lens, the police are not merely judged for the lawfulness of their conduct, they are judged for their ability to demonstrate respect, earn trust, promote legitimacy, and champion procedural justice on behalf of specified identity groups.

Beyond law enforcement and crime reduction, the police are expected to be culturally sensitive, and work to eliminate the actual and perceived effects of discrimination.

Social justice theories drive much of the criminal justice reform effort, including a preference for police responses that allow people to avoid harsh legal and financial consequences. This can mean diverting eligible people away from jails and courts and into less stigmatizing community-based support programs.

In some places—to strategically reduce the frequency of force, build trust, and reduce community tensions—achieving social justice means enforcing fewer laws, searching fewer cars, stopping fewer people, and making fewer arrests.

Competing Interests

Most of the government’s goals are complementary and to achieve one is to benefit another. But it is easy to see the natural tension that develops when “law and order” interests compete with “social justice” priorities.

Some agencies resolve this tension by expressly adopting social justice policies. By restricting force options, discretionary stops, pursuits, and arrests, these agencies hope to avoid even the appearance of discrimination.3 Officers may not always agree with those policies, but there is value in communicating clear expectations.

The challenge comes when officers are trained to operate in support of traditional “law and order” goals but are then evaluated for how well they supported a community’s social justice efforts. This challenge is compounded when police oversight involves people deliberately chosen to advocate for special interests, while official “law and order” policy remains unchanged.

Unofficial oversight can further complicate the review process. This can happen when discrete community protestors, biased media outlets, and police reform advocates reject legal standards, and instead judge police conduct by its impact on a specific social justice outcome.

What does this have to do with realistic de-escalation? Everything.

Public affairs officers or agency leaders who confidently defend an officer’s use of force by pointing to “officer safety,” “crime reduction,” or even “public safety,” are winning a game that the other side may not be playing.

When a community’s goals are for the police to stop shooting their sons and stop filling jails with their fathers, it is little comfort that the arrest or shooting was legally justified—and highly unlikely they will concede that point.

Instead, communities will continue to demand “accountability” and accuse agencies and officers of failing to de-escalate, or worse, unreasonably creating the jeopardy. Whether these demands are reasonable depends on who ultimately sets the government’s priorities, whether officers were ever trained on these priorities, and if de-escalation was even a realistic option.

As we continue to explore realistic de-escalation in this series, readers are asked to keep the balance of risk and competing government interests in mind. In our next article, we will explain when de-escalation is a realistic option.  We will provide officers, attorneys, and community members a structure by which to expertly evaluate the timing of de-escalation and use of force decisions.

We hope you’ll join us as we introduce readers to the conditions required for effective “non-coercive” de-escalation—Containment, Control, Contact, Communication, and Cooperation.  

  1. Readers may recognize this as a condensed version of Graham’s “reasonableness” test, which “requires a careful balancing of ‘the nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual’s Fourth Amendment interests’ against the countervailing governmental interests at stake.” Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 396 (1989) (quoting Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1, 7 (1985 []
  2. Courts have recognized the following as examples of “important government interests,” social order, administration of justice, officer safety, public safety, crime prevention, law enforcement, traffic regulation, safeguarding property, and maintaining peace. []
  3. Policy restrictions can also be a necessary balance of law and order priorities, e.g., “no chase” policies balance public safety against law enforcement. []
3 Responses
  1. Jerry Peters

    I am a retired police officer serving 35+ years retiring with the rank of sergeant, I consider your writing very informative. I still maintain my P.O.S.T., certification in the discipline of firearms training, shooting decision and use of force. I strongly agree with law enforcement, working with their community for social justice. But, it is very difficult for the police to serve their community, when there is a large presence of gang activity and illicit drug distribution by known drug dealers, who are willing to shoot and kill police officers. I was awarded the medal of valor in 1995 after I had to take the life of a 19 year old drug dealer, who was shooting at me. De- escalation for law enforcement, can be very dangerous. Keep up the good work.

  2. I recently retired after 34 years of frontline policing and finishing my career as the president of our local police association (union). I agree completely with what you are saying. However, police officers should not continue to be held responsible when they use force when they deem it necessary and justified given the criteria they are acting upon. If the government, influenced by biased special interest groups, believes that certain laws “discriminate” against certain categories of individuals, then those beliefs should be reflected in the laws police officers are called to uphold. If there is an overwhelming majority of people who prefer that LEO’s refrain from enforcing law that are perceived to infringe upon the rights of specific groups, then they should have the courage to publicly voice that belief and CHANGE THE LAWS that they ask us to enforce. These lawmakers should be the individuals held to account, and not the police officers who are acting under the assumption that they are carrying out their duties “in good faith”. I am tired of watching our noble profession take the blame for gutless politicians who refuse to publicly make these changers, and only speak up, in agreement, when the special interest groups are making all the noise and making headlines. They should have the guts to make their opinions heard and answer to all the citizens their decisions affect. Stop allowing our members to take the fall for their cowardice.

  3. Tim Williams

    I was a Police Officer for 15 years and I retired early to move to the Federal side of the fence to Instruct. During my time on the street (in the trenches), I was a Patrol Officer, a Narcotics Investigator, a SWAT Operator, a Firearms/Defensive Tactics Instructor, and a Supervisor. This is a great article and I would agree with a majority of it. In my experience, the biggest hurdle I see is getting the Officers the training. Taking the Officers off the street and allowing them the opportunity to get the much needed training is extremely important. I would say this about all training and not just de-escalation training. I struggled with this throughout my career just getting the approval to go to the training. Experience plays a huge role in de-escalation of situations as well. Thank you for sharing the article.

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