De-escalation In Law Enforcement
In the final episode of this 4-part series, President Tignanelli and Dr. Ken Wolf, POAM Director of the Members Lifeline Program, discuss de-escalation and recent examples of what they have experienced within their membership. Listen to the entire podcast or read the transcript below.
Again, in this series of podcasts that we’ve worked on here, I’ve learned a lot from it and I hope that some of the people listening will provoke a little bit of thought. You know, we talked a little bit about how the pandemic impacted the people that we deal with, how it changed their lives and continues to in some ways and may change them for many years to come. You know, staying at home, quarantining, homeschooling, and how that changed the people that we always were used to dealing with. And then we talked a little bit about how that has impacted us on a job where, by doing our job, we could be sent home for 14 days for something we didn’t wrong, because of an exposure to somebody that we were sent to help. We talked about how these changes in behavior and these changes in things that have occurred in the last two years have had an impact on the hiring of police officers, and it’s lost its luster a little bit.
We seem to hear more about the things they do wrong or where they fail as a person than we used to. And the loss of status, so maybe how that impacts those people that we put in the uniform because of pensions being reduced or retirement healthcare being eliminated, things like that. And what I like to think about today as we bring this to a close is that, let me give you a couple of examples of incidents that I’m personally familiar with that I’ve been on this job. And one of them, and I think they fall into this category of maybe the pandemic had an impact here.
Member Situation Example
One of them was a situation where a probably homeless, mentally ill person who had run into the wall in life and wanted to die and was lying in a street trying to get run over, not doing a real good job of it.
I think he was looking for help seriously, but doing it in an odd way. And an officer that had many years on the job, who had been basically lettered honorable job, was a decorated officer and tried to help this person ultimately did drive him to the hospital. But he wasn’t under arrest. He took him to try to seek help for himself under the situation because the rules are kind of variations on how you treat people that are mentally ill nowadays, different things that you have to look for and do. And when he did that, the officer said something that was deemed to be insensitive to this person. The person didn’t react to it, didn’t complain about it, didn’t even turn around, but it was all captured on camera. And because of these insensitive things that were said, he was disciplined.
And the reason he was disciplined was that after they viewed this video, if someone else, as far as I know, no one else ever did see it, but if someone else ever did see it, that it wouldn’t look right. We talked earlier in these podcasts about how the eighth test of just cause seems to have become optics. It doesn’t look right. It’s not good. It could be tough for the city or the police department. And that’s a reason to discipline people now. And it was never even a discussion before. And so another situation where we talked about people in the old days spitting on you and saying that they had AIDS and how it created a lot of anxiety for an officer for probably months before they would get their blood drawn enough times to feel that they were not infected, and probably someone that didn’t even have AIDS that did it, but we had to air on the side of caution there.
And now we’ve got this airborne virus where we could literally be several feet apart and perhaps be infected. And this other situation where a person that was under arrest that had a checkered past at best spits on an officer, that person says they have the virus, and this officer reacts quickly and probably in a way that some mothers might do, but was unacceptable behavior for a law enforcement officer, and ends up losing his job because of it. And would he have done that, would all this have occurred if it was being spat on, which certainly is an assault on a police officer always has been, and if it is a person that is infected, it would be a felonious assault or certainly aggravated, but no charges are brought against that person and the officer gets himself in trouble.
And you know, when talking to him, he was concerned about his four kids. He was concerned about it was the holidays that he would maybe miss some holiday pay that he could use, maybe being quarantined in the house over Christmas while his kids are down the hall opening gifts. You know, this all went through his mind before the incident between him and this other person. And when he told me that, it made sense to me why this wasn’t just a normal deal and it was really all an outgrowth of the pandemic. And so when we arrive on these calls, in the old days when you got a call of a domestic fight between a father and son, or a mother and daughter, or a husband and wife, the standard procedure was, “Okay, when we get there, you take her out back and I’ll take him out front and we’ll talk to them both, get their side of the story while they can’t hear each other and argue about it.”
Things to Consider
And it was pretty, not simple, and not that it wasn’t dangerous, but that seemed to work. Whereas now, officers are ambushed when they get sent to a call like that. It might not even have been a domestic violence case there. So we always would try to think ahead about, “Okay, here’s how we’re going to approach this. You go on the left side, I’ll go on the right. You go in the front, you go in the back,” things like that. But now that margin of error has grown so big because so many different things could happen. It’s not just that he’s going to be right and she’s wrong, or she’s going to be right and he’s wrong. It could be a gunfight. Whereas in the past, it used to be you worried about a knife on the table, or you worried about a beer bottle, now you had to worry about being shot.
And it seems to be less of a concern for the people that are assaulting the officer. It used to be they would try to punch you or run from you, but now they want to shoot. So what I guess I’d like to hear is what kind of things should we be thinking about, or what kind of things do you think are the root causes of these, where now the officer doesn’t have this narrow margin that he has to concern to when he goes to this type of call. A traffic stop was just, “I want to make sure I don’t get hit by a passing vehicle,” now I have to worry about is the guy going to come out charging at me with a weapon.
So the things that they have to consider are more of a variety and the problem we have is that if we pick A or Z, we could be way overreacting or way under-reacting and we have this split second to do it. What do you think has changed? We’ve talked about de-escalation. Tell me a little bit about that and what your theory is on it, or the things you’ve learned about it that might help us.
Dr. Ken Wolf
Well, I think nothing happens in a vacuum and I think in a very literal sense, American society is in transition. A lot of the traditional rules, understandings, social patterns are being disrupted, and there’s a new sense of upheaval and everybody’s trying to learn what the new roles are. I think we talked about the social demonstrations, the changes of the street cop, the beat cop. That’s a nice line you got sir, now what else is happening?
The norms that we always expected are changing. The thresholds for citizens to now act aggressively against the police have been much more frequent. And then the question that’s going on in the mind of the officer is how safe is this run? You know, whereas you might go into a run with a certain degree of confidence that I don’t anticipate problems, because of, as you said, the ambushes, the assaults, the shootings on the domestic runs in New York and Washington, the officer has a much more sense of vigilance and seize mentality.
You know, I have to read the verbal, the nonverbal signs, and I have to be very protective given the level of danger. And then when you have citizens on a one-on-one basis who really shower the officer with a sense of contempt or saying, “I’m going to spit on you and you’re going to get COVID,” I mean that’s a lethal threat they’re making against the officer. And in the mind of the officer, there could be many reactions. “Here I’m trying to help, here I’m trying to be professional, and this person may, in reality, try to harm me.” So there’s maybe a level of frustration.
You know, when I used to interview people in the academy, I said, “Why’d you become a police officer?” “I want to help my community. I want to make a difference.” There was a sense of gentleness and mission and commitment to the community. When the officer feels that the community is failing the officer, is not recognizing the dedication of the professional or the sacrifice, and worse, they deliberately try and provoke the officer or endanger the officer’s safety, the officer has to recalibrate what is his role, what is his mission intellectually because every day he puts on his leather and goes to the street. You know what dangers are going to happen to me?
And the cumulative effect I think of seeing the community anger, crowd anger is maybe making them less tolerant and less patient when they get frustrated, abused, insulted, verbally, or in some way attacked and that may have some of the overreaction.
Let me ask you. I want to interrupt you because I understand what you’re saying and the importance of it. Do you think, because it seems like it’s accelerated in the last two and a half, three years, and I guess we could blame some of that on the pandemic, but it might have started a little before that when there were a couple of well-covered police matters on television, but do you think that the media coverage, we can’t change it, I’m not trying to judge them on it, but trying to understand in my mind why people have changed that way? It wasn’t a generational thing. It was a whole group of people between teenagers and 40 years of age that decided to change how they viewed the police.
Do you think that the media coverage in Portland and Seattle and some of the towns there, showed people taking over whole streets and creating a government inside of a town where the police had to stand there, we talked about earlier, being spit on or having frozen water bottles thrown at them, or umbrellas with the ends made into like ice picks, and the officers just having to stand there, being told to stand down. No bond arrests where people get arrested three and four times in a day because they don’t have to post bond. There are no consequences to these assaults. Do you think that perpetuates the problem somehow to where, have people changed, or did that give them a reason to think that change was an acceptable thing?
Dr. Ken Wolf
I would look at it from a different perspective in terms of like the praise of rage. We see angry people. We see angry politicians. We see angry people who are challenging all the institutions of this country. You know, the election, the legitimacy of this, and it’s creating a lot of doubt. You know, the dollar bill says E Pluribus Unum, out of many one, and we seem to be fractionalizing ourselves as a civilization. And the microcosm on the street level, people see the officer really as an agent of stability, an agent of the government, and they feel a license to challenge them on multiple levels and they think it’s been reinforced by all the other ways the agents of society, government, legislators, politicians are challenging and it’s lowered their threshold of restraint. It’s a lack of civility.
But the officer has to go back there and show discipline and restraint and follow the rules, but there are new rules by which the citizens are acting on and I think there has to be a mental recalibration on the part of the officer with the expectation that what used to be a more gentle kind of interaction may have variability. It makes them feel more uncertain and sometimes they have a flashpoint where they may overreact because they haven’t accepted this as a norm, but rather as an attack or an assault against their integrity and safety.
Well, that all makes sense. Do you think that age of the officer, I guess, let me say from myself, I’m a child of the 60s and the 60s were a lot of civil unrest. Let’s face it, you know, whether I know Kent State was 1970, but going back, the Vietnam war, the types of race riots in the streets for a variety of other reasons in big towns, and I was taking my road test in Detroit on July 24th of 1967 during the riot. So we saw those things, but it seemed like we all got over it, most of us I guess. And now I’m seeing this sort of modern version of that same type of civil unrest, only the media coverage is much bigger. You know, we had three or four channels in those days and now you’ve got 24/7 coverage of it.
So consequently, maybe it’ll take longer for it to change if it changes at all. But I guess as a guy my age, it kind of gives me hope that maybe at some point in time these people will outgrow this or will learn how to manage it differently. But I think all those theories that you just shared there about how it impacts people and how that threshold change makes sense. It might have made sense in those days, we just didn’t see it that way or we didn’t see enough of it to be able to develop a theory.
Dr. Ken Wolf
You know, two things up to mind. It’s not just the media, it’s the internet. The internet gives every extremist a megaphone to preach whatever they want, unfiltered for the most part. And then some people listen to certain people espouse their hatred, their suspicion, their paranoia, and if those channels are directed against law enforcement, then people feel, “I have a legitimacy of not obeying, being disobedient, when I interact with the police.” So that’s one source of justification. You know, give me liberty or give me death, and I have a right to be defiant. The other thing is we were training a group of officers yesterday, and we were talking about violence in the school. And the older officers, you know the 60s-70s people, they were talking about the sense of horror and how could this stuff go on where we terrify and our kids are harming each other.
The younger officers sort of grew up since 2002 with the shootings, the Columbine, and they said, “You know what, that’s happened, let’s just get used to it.” It’s almost like they developed acceptability of the level of violence and not to be outraged by it. And I think when we see some of the people not responding with civility, with anger, and it’s channeled against the officers, the younger generation seems to feel, “Well, it’s kind of okay, we’ve been growing up with it, let’s just continue it.” Whereas the other people who had a different sense of morals, a sense of respect for law and order, are outraged. And again, this is like a split in our country in terms of our values and our expectation of what is civility and what is acceptable behavior when people are acting in rebellious ways.
Well, I found this conversation really helpful. We covered a lot of areas from substance abuse to the pandemic and behavior, and as I’m listening to it now, I’m thinking that maybe as time goes on, us dinosaur guys like myself will pass on into the future and the next generation will have a different understanding. Right now I guess we’re just sort of stuck in the middle where we’ve got enough of both sides of that number line.
Dr. Ken Wolf
There’s another statistic that’s very disturbing. Last year, there was a 20% increase in the purchase of weapons in the United States. And some of it has been attributed let’s say to the social unrest, people don’t feel safe, “I have to have weapons to defend me.” On the other hand, what that does is increase the availability of weapons in homes, in the workplace, and then when people are angry, what used to be a fistfight, now guns make permanent what used to be a skirmish. So I think that anger and the availability to deliver lethal harm in part adds to the number of shootings and ambushes against officers because there are more guns available.
Well, I guess I have a different theory on that, but you’re right. I understand where a bad guy with a gun could be a bad guy, but I think all my life, a little guy could kill you with a baseball bat. We didn’t learn how to resolve disputes without fighting, and it could be a brother and his sister, it could be two brothers where, “It’s my bike, it’s your bike, or it’s my turn, it’s your turn.” You know, it got to where at some point in time once they decided that a baseball bat or a hardball was a viable weapon, then the little guy became just as powerful as the big guy. And now it’s gotten to the point where there are more weapons around.
But when I was on the job, the first thing I looked for was weapons. You know, when you worked undercover, it was a stick on the ground, it was a rock. I guess guns have made little guys into big guys, but they were bad little guys, so I guess we’ll figure it out from there. But been very helpful. Appreciate your time. I hope the listeners find this interesting. We’re going to continue to do more of these because I think we can’t learn too much and I appreciate the time.
This is the last episode of a 4-part podcast series. Thank you for tuning in to another edition of the POAM Podcast Radio Show. This de-escalation episode is available for download on major podcast platforms. Get on our newsletter and send us all of your comment and suggestions for future shows.