A Systematic Social Observation Study of Police De-Escalation Tactics

Published date01 December 2018
Date01 December 2018
Subject MatterArticles
A Systematic Social
Observation Study
of Police De-Escalation
Natalie Todak
and Lois James
This study analyzes 131 police–citizen interactions observed during Fall 2016 and
coded through systematic social observation. We assessed how often officers use
de-escalation tactics, factors associated with their use, and the relationship between
de-escalation and calm citizen demeanor. We found officers frequently employed de-
escalation tactics, including the “respect” tactic of treating citizens in a respectful
manner, the “human” tactic of getting on the citizen’s level and reducing power
imbalances, and the “honest” tactic of being up front about the facts of the situation.
Officers were more influenced by citizen demeanor than demographics in their use
of de-escalation. The use of several tactics, including “human” (reducing the power
differential between the cop and the citizen) and “calm” (the officer making an effort
to control his or her own emotions), was associated with calm citizen demeanor.
Directions for future research on this important topic are offered.
police, de-escalation, systematic social observation, use of force, police–citizen
Department of Criminal Justice, University of Alabama at Birmingham, AL, USA
College of Nursing, Sleep and Performance Research Center, Washington State University, Spokane,
Corresponding Author:
Natalie Todak, Department of Criminal Justice, University of Alabama at Birmingham, 1202 University
Blvd., Birmingham, AL 35294-4562, USA.
Email: ntod@uab.edu
Police Quarterly
2018, Vol. 21(4) 509–543
!The Author(s) 2018
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1098611118784007
There is a signif‌icant amount of scrutiny over police use of force today (Weitzer,
2015). While race has been a persistent theme through the history of American
policing (Dulaney, 1996; White & Fradella, 2016), recent high-prof‌ile events
have sparked unrest over use of force decisions made by police, particularly
in the context of interactions with minority citizens. Viral stories of police
using deadly force against unarmed Black men and boys, including Michael
Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice, have led to accusations of excessive
force, brutality, and racism, further eroding citizen trust in law enforcement.
Public concerns over the state of policing are one of the most polarizing issues
affecting American society today.
One suggestion to address the crisis has been for police agencies to implement
better de-escalation training and policies (see, e.g., Police Executive Research
Forum, 2015; President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, 2015). Police
off‌icers are well trained in use of force and defense tactics, and procedural justice
has been emphasized as a strategy to ensure citizens feel that they have been
treated fairly, courteously, and professionally in their encounters with police.
However, police training does not generally teach tactics for violence de-
escalation. In the same vein, most research studying police–citizen violence
has studied how, when, and why off‌icers decide to use force but has not exam-
ined techniques to avoid it. The present study assumed this latter goal. We
observed 131 police–citizen encounters on 35 ride-alongs in Spokane, WA, total-
ing 175 f‌ield hours, and coded each interaction using systematic social observa-
tion (SSO; see, e.g., Mastrofski, Parks, & McCluskey, 2010). Our study sought
to answer three research questions, to provide a f‌irst exploratory look at the use
of de-escalation by police:
1. How often do off‌icers use de-escalation tactics?
2. What suspect and off‌icer-level factors are associated with de-escalation
use? and
3. Is de-escalation associated with a success ful encounter outcome?
Literature Review
Use of Force and De-Escalation in Contemporary Context
Use of force is a def‌ining feature of police authority. Bittner (1970) identif‌ied the
role of police as the use or threat of coercion to enforce the law and protect the
public. He went on to argue, “the skill of policing consists of f‌inding ways to
avoid its use” (Bittner, 1974, p. 40), suggesting that while force is an option
unique to police, the off‌icer must also use force sparingly and only when nec-
essary to protect public safety (see also Fyfe, 1986, 1996; James, Todak, &
Savage, 2018; Klockars, 1996). A similar argument was made by Reiman
(1985), who believed in the collective right of citizens to demand the coercive
510 Police Quarterly 21(4)
authority of the police is used legitimately, competently, fairly, and in good faith
and to demand change when police actions violate one or more of
these principles.
In recent years, police shootings of Michael Brown and other unarmed Black
men set off a series of riots and nationwide criticism of police use of force. In
response, former President Obama formed a task force to investigate the state of
American policing (The Executive Off‌ice of the President, 2014). This crisis
inspired many agencies to renew their dedication to protecting human life and
fostering good relationships with the public. Procedural justice training is one
strategy that has emerged. Procedural justice involves citizen perceptions of their
interactions with police on four dimensions: participation, fairness and neutral-
ity, dignity and respect, and trustworthiness (Goodman-Delahunty, 2010; Tyler,
1988). Because evidence links citizen perceptions of procedural justice with their
attitudes toward and cooperation with police (Mazerolle, Antrobus, Bennett, &
Tyler, 2013; Sunshine & Tyler, 2003; Tyler, 2003), procedurally just police strat-
egies were highlighted as a recommendation in the Task Force’s f‌inal report
(President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, 2015).
The f‌inal report also recommended that police agencies adopt de-escalation
as an organizational philosophy (President’s Task Force on 21st Century
Policing, 2015), and recently, a few large agencies including the New York,
Seattle, and Dallas Police Departments have implemented de-escalation training
(Griff‌ith, 2016). When compared with procedural justice, however, very little
research has studied the topic of de-escalation in the context of policing. In
addition, the term de-escalation lacks a specif‌ic def‌inition. Some have argued
the term is a buzz word (Flosi, 2016; Force Science, 2016; Jackman, 2016;
Martinelli, 2016; T. Williams, 2015), while many police say they already use
de-escalation on the job on a daily basis. To do otherwise, they say, would mean
getting into a confrontation at every call—something many would prefer to
avoid. Still more have said de-escalation involves anything from talking, to
“sticking a gun in the suspect’s nose,” as long as the threat is neutralized
(T. Williams, 2015). Others disagree, arguing the strategy should involve using
less force, slowing down encounters, and communicating in ways that calm tense
situations. A specif‌ic def‌inition of de-escalation and an empirical understanding
of its current role in police work are clearly warranted.
Factors Influencing Police Use of Force
Research shows police use of force during citizen encounters is rare and—when
employed—most often low in severity (Alpert & Dunham, 2000; Eith & Durose,
2011; Terrill, 2005). Hickman, Piquero, and Garner (2008) did however observe
that force is more common in arrest situations, occurring in one in f‌ive arrests.
Studies examining predictors of use of force can be categorized into four groups:
individual, situational, organizational, and ecological.
Todak and James 511

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