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Depending on whom you ask, “de-escalation training” is either a miracle cure or a four-letter word.
As high-profile, deadly confrontations between law enforcement officers and civilians continue to generate widespread public concern, de-escalation training has been hailed as the solution for this seemingly intractable problem. Public officials and policy makers from across the political spectrum have embraced de-escalation training as the key to safer interactions between police and the public.
But for some law enforcement officers, "de-escalation" is a loaded word. "What they hear is, 'You're teaching me to hesitate, and that's gonna get me killed,'" said Robin Engel, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Cincinnati. "When we go in to implement this, we have to call it something else."
Engel, a nationally respected criminologist, has conducted years of research on de-escalation training and its role in law enforcement. What she found early on surprised her: Despite the conflicting claims and strong emotions, very little was proven and consistent in de-escalation training. There weren’t many standards regarding what de-escalation training should teach or how it should be implemented, and absolutely no studies examining whether or not it worked.
Engel, whose work on de-escalation training is supported, in part, by grants from the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), set out to find answers. And while de-escalation training is not a cure-all—it can't be applied in every situation—a groundbreaking study by Engel found that de-escalation training can dramatically reduce injuries among civilians and law enforcement officers alike.
"I was surprised and thrilled that we found a reduction in injuries," Engel said in a recent interview. "As a social scientist, most of the studies we do don’t find enough evidence to show anything. But in this case, I was really surprised by the size of the finding."
Engel first began focusing on de-escalation training seven years ago, when her career took an unexpected and highly unusual turn. Although she had spent her entire career in academia, she was asked to take charge of the campus police department at the University of Cincinnati at a time of crisis.
In July 2015, a University of Cincinnati campus police officer fatally shot a Black motorist named Samuel DuBose during a traffic stop. A public furor ensued and the officer who shot DuBose, Ray Tensing, was charged with murder. Two trials ended with hung juries and in 2017 the charges against Tensing were dropped.
Shortly after the shooting, the university president asked Engel to develop a plan to reform the campus police force. She was stunned when the president asked her to implement her proposed changes as head of the agency.
"I’m a consultant," Engel said. "I had not been a police officer. But it was important that we get this right."
So, while continuing to serve on the University faculty, she also began attending emotional public hearings and overseeing efforts to change campus police processes and procedures. One of the items high on her agenda was de-escalation training. "I wasn't going to ask our officers to do something unless we were confident in it," Engel said. She was surprised by what she found—and did not find.
Although a variety of consultants were offering de-escalation training to police departments, their courses varied widely. There was no general agreement in law enforcement about what concepts should be included in de-escalation training or how they should be taught. There was also no academic research on whether any variety of de-escalation training actually protected the public.
Engel soon discovered that many uniformed officers were skeptical of de-escalation training because it contradicted some of the basic tenets they had learned.
"Patrol officers were taught to handle a situation quickly so it wouldn’t get worse," Engel said. "Go in fast, use the amount of force you need so things won’t get out of control."
By contrast, de-escalation training incorporates tactics that are employed by special operations units, such as SWAT teams, that take a very different approach to handling hostage situations and other potentially violent incidents.
"These officers were taught to use time, distance and cover to their advantage," Engel said. "For patrol officers, time was viewed as 'The more time you give a suspect, the more danger you're in.'"
"De-escalation training teaches officers to think about use of force in different ways. Instead of, 'Can I use force?,' the question becomes, 'Should I use force?'"—Robin Engel
After she stepped down as head of the campus police force, her work on de-escalation training broadened in scope. She worked with several national law enforcement organizations who hammered out a model use-of-force policy that is being implemented by agencies across the country. She also joined with the Louisville, Kentucky police department to conduct a rigorous evaluation of de-escalation training provided to officers.
She was pleased to find that, in Louisville, de-escalation training reduced use-of-force incidents by 28 percent and citizen injuries by 26 percent. She was shocked to discover that officer injuries were reduced by an even larger margin, 36 percent.
"There’s a narrative out there, a false narrative, that if you engage in police reform you will be sacrificing public safety," Engel said. "At their very best, police reform efforts reduce crime and make the public safer."
These days, Engel and her team from the University of Cincinnati are teaching de-escalation training programs to several local law enforcement agencies in Oregon as part of a Crisis Response and Intervention Program that is sponsored by BJA grants.
They are also working with the State of New Jersey, which passed a law requiring all 550 of its local law enforcement agencies to report use-of-force data and to implement de-escalation training. Engel looks forward to analyzing the results.
"We're pushing this out into lots of places, and there's a growing body of evidence that de-escalation training, if done properly, can make a police officer’s job safer," Engel said. "I hope that these findings will have an impact. Rather than have police executives say to officers 'You will do this (de-escalation training),' I hope we’ll have officers demand that they get it."