Officers are increasingly becoming targets of aggression, resistance and defiance. How an officer responds can either lead to a nonviolent contact peacefully resolved or a potentially deadly encounter. Learning effective techniques to avoid making contacts personal and to de-escalate a situation is essential.
Scenario for de-escalation
An officer pulls over a car for speeding and approaches the driver’s side door. The driver initially refuses to lower the window. After being asked again, the driver lowers the window one inch and, in a belligerent tone, demands to know why the officer stopped him: “Don’t you have anything better to do, like beat up somebody? What’s your problem?”
The officer replies, “Please let me see your driver’s license, registration and insurance.” The irate driver asks tersely, “Why?” The officer immediately snaps and angrily responds, “Because I told you! Get out of the car now and give them to me!”
The driver aggressively throws open the car door and leaps out, confronting the officer and yelling at him. The officer steps back and calls for immediate cover. When the driver keeps walking forward, the officer pushes him backward and a fight ensues. Ultimately, the driver is arrested for delaying and obstructing an officer and for assault.
Consider how the officer might have responded differently to this uncooperative driver. What could the officer have done to help avoid escalating this confrontation, which significantly increased the risk of harm to both the officer and the driver?
This scenario highlights a common mistake that, unfortunately, many officers make. Without the daily practice of resilience (see my APB article entitled “Effective strategies to strengthen resiliency” at apbweb.com/2021/12/resiliency), officers can lose control under stress. However, becoming angry is often like throwing gas on a fire, which endangers everyone, sometimes with tragic results.
This scenario highlights two critical learning objectives that are essential for any peace officer to understand in order to remain safe and to prevent the situation from spiraling out of control.
- Never make your job personal. “Because I said so” is never a good response because it personalizes the interaction with the subject. This can prompt someone to react defensively and often defiantly, as if the officer is causing the problem, not the person’s actions. Everything an officer does must be authorized by law, policy and procedure, as well as by the power granted the officer by the people of the state — not by personal will, dictate or desire.
- When subjects are upset, de-escalation techniques can often increase officer safety and lead to positive outcomes, often without the need for the use of force. Understand that you are not the law; you enforce the law. Peace officers do not make the law; they explain it, enforce it and encourage others to willingly comply with it. Officers are only legally permitted to do what the law specifically authorizes, not what they want, demand or think should be done when someone becomes verbally abusive and resistant.
In this scenario, when asked “why?”, the officer should have said something like: “I’m asking because the law directs any driver stopped by the police to provide their driver’s license, registration and insurance. Failure to do so is another violation of the law. I stopped you for speeding. May I please have your license and information?”
This reply clarifies that the officer isn’t personally requesting these documents; the law demands it. The officer has no personal vested interest, and he is merely doing what the law mandates. That subtle differentiation de-personalizes and de-escalates the situation. It’s also a very effective way to practice resilience.
I’ve observed numerous times that when an officer either makes an interaction personal or takes a subject’s reaction personally, or simply doesn’t take the time to explain the reason for their actions, subjects often get upset, confrontational or complain. People may not like what an officer is doing, but if the officer explains that the law requires or authorizes the officer to take certain actions, then at least the person knows it’s about the law and what they’ve done, not who they are.
That makes them less likely to resist or argue. An officer could say, “Hey, look, it’s nothing personal. You did [whatever the observed violation was], and that violates the law. Now I’m just doing what the law directs me to do. The more you cooperate, the quicker this will be resolved.”
All officers are taught de-escalation tactics, so remember to use them when someone’s upset. Always explain your actions and give the legal justifications. Use the least amount of reasonable force necessary to gain compliance. Fight against the “us against them” or “me against you” mentality. That only fosters or feeds a subject’s resistance, defiance and anger. When you get pulled into that dynamic, it’s easy to lose control of your emotions and your reactions. Remain focused on the law and what the law authorizes you to do, while exercising good judgment as to how to most effectively handle the situation.
Another strategy is to focus on the reason for the law. In this scenario, the officer could explain to the driver that speed is the number one cause of injury collisions, or that traffic enforcement directly correlates to lower traffic deaths and injuries. Usually, when you can calmly, rationally and impersonally explain the reasons for your actions, and that the law authorizes your actions, you’ll face less resistance.
In addition, in police reports, officers must always legally justify the actions they took. They can never hide, minimize or misrepresent anything. If they do something wrong, they must be honest about it. They can never lie on a police report, in court or to a supervisor. To live and serve with integrity, they must maintain the highest level of resilience and wellness.
Therefore, practice resilience and wellness strategies daily and always work under the authority of what the law permits, in the manner that the law authorizes. The law is your shield, not your will, pride or emotions. That’s why it’s imperative throughout your career to always be learning. Make sure you know the law inside and out: the penal code, vehicle codes, laws of detention and arrest, laws and techniques of interview and interrogation, case law and so on. The more of the law you know, the more you will be capable of doing, the more confidence you’ll have and the more successful and safer you will be.
Officers are facing increasing resistance and confrontation from subjects. Allowing yourself to be drawn into that dynamic of anger and unbridled emotion can lead to unintended, sometimes horrific, consequences. The more impersonal the officer reacts while explaining the law and their actions, the safer everyone will be.