The Escalating Need For De-escalation

The Escalating Need For De-escalation

Alexis ChapmanThursday,26 May 2016

This week in the category of necessary but probably hopeless legislation we have H.R. 5221. The “Preventing Tragedies Between Police and Communities Act of 2016” would require police departments around the country to use de-escalation training and techniques in order to continue to receive certain federal grant money. The bill is based on recommendations from the March 2016 report “Guiding Principals On Use of Force” by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF). It was introduced on May 12 by Rep. Gwen Moore (D-WI) and on the 18th the Judiciary Committee referred it to the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations. There’s a good chance that is as far as it will go.

The bill would require training in “non-lethal methods of applying force”, “verbal and physical tactics to minimize the need for the use of force”, and “awareness and recognition of mental health and substance abuse issues with an emphasis on communication strategies” among other areas. It would also mandate that state and local governments enact policies regarding the use of de-escalation techniques and that the Attorney General collect data about de-escalation training. The requirements are supported by the PERF report, which drew conclusions about use of force and de-escalation by looking at statistics in the U.S. and also studying police tactics in Scotland, where most officers don’t carry guns and but manage to do police work anyways.

By making sure that police learn and use de-escalation techniques this legislation could help bring down the number of police interactions that result in death. In 2015, 990 people were fatally shot by police and 42 police officers were killed by firearms in the line of duty. In recent years several deaths at the hands of police have received public attention and raised serious questions about how, why, and on whom police officers decide to use force, especially lethal force. This bill would be a response to justified public concerns about the actions of public servants. De-escalation might also help to rebuild relationships between the police and the public, which are badly broken in some communities. For instance in Chicago, where crime rates have spiked lately, a recent poll by Kaiser Family Foundation found that a majority of residents rate the police force negatively and 7% of respondents think that calling the police will make a situation worse.

As Federal legislation this bill would also create a national standard of behavior across all law enforcement. Some police departments around the country are already adopting de-escalation training or other types of training to reduce fatal police encounters. This is good news for the people that live in those communities but it also highlights the fact that police in different parts of the country respond to incidents in very different ways. Having wildly disparate law enforcement standards and tactics around the country is not exactly fair to citizens or indicative of a free society and is something that this bill could address.

So yeah, it would be great if this bill passed but it probably won’t. The Republican-controlled Congress is probably not going to move a Democratic bill that could in any way be construed as being “anti-police”. To be clear, this bill isn’t anti-police; the PERF report concluded that de-escalation tactics could improve officer safety and, as noted, a number of police departments support de-escalation and have already started adopting these tactics on their own which they probably wouldn’t be doing if they were bad for police. But, there is still backlash against the de-escalation trend from some police who claim that the tactics could put more law enforcement lives at risk. Several large police unions and other groups condemned PERF’s report when it was released and would likely put up strong opposition to the bill if it shows signs of moving. So for now we’ll just have to wait for individual departments to see the merits of de-escalation and implement it on their own, and hopefully they will soon, because already this year 381 people have been shot and killed by police, and 20 police officers have been fatally shot in the line of duty.

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Image Credit: Thomas Hawk on Flickr

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