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ASU study: De-escalation training helps cops learn how to stay safe

De-escalation training is more likely to improve police-civilian interactions when it’s perceived by cops as a way to keep them safe on the job, according to an Arizona State University (ASU) study.

The study, based on a two-year research effort with the Tempe, AZ police force, found what it called “clear and compelling evidence” that the training “fundamentally altered―for the better―the ways in which officers handle encounters with citizens.”

Training that focused on the benefits of de-escalation tactics for officer safety “translated into greater reported use of tactics designed to reduce risk to officers and citizens,” the study said.

The researchers cautiously avoided concluding there was a direct link between the training and a reduction in the use of force against civilians, noting that the study period occurred during the pandemic and the charged climate following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

But they argued that an evaluation of metrics not commonly used in evaluating police interaction with civilians showed that officers who experienced the de-escalation training:

  • were less likely to use a condescending/patronizing tone;
  • were more likely to attempt to build rapport with the citizen;
  • were less likely to fail to transfer control to another officer, if necessary;
  • were less likely to use charged/ imposing body language; and
  • were more likely to resolve the encounter informally.

De-escalation training has attracted skepticism from both officers and the public, despite the fact that it is one of the key recommendations of advocates and senior police experts.

“There is virtually no empirical evidence on de-escalation in policing,” the study acknowledged. “We do not know what it is, what it includes, or whether it is effective.”

The Tempe police agency, in partnership with ASU researchers, decided to develop a training course “customized” for their officers and community. Members of the police force nominated by their peers attended de-escalation courses in various cities and then returned to develop a  “curriculum” that was aimed at getting maximum buy-in from officers.

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“What officers think about de-escalation likely affects how willing they are to use it.” 

“What officers think about de-escalation likely affects how willing they are to use it,” the researchers said, noting that a curriculum that emphasized officer safety and wellness, rather than just addressing the complaints of interest groups, was more likely to be taken seriously by rank and file cops.

Once the curriculum was established, it was made available to randomly selected cohorts of 10 to 20 officers for a series of one-day training sessions between January and March 2020. Researchers then compared the results over the subsequent months with that of a “control’ group which did not undergo the training.

The evaluations included both data on use of force incidents and citizen surveys.

They found that use-of-force incidents declined in both cohorts, noting that the study coincided with a drop in arrests during the COVID lockdown.

But they also observed what they called “potentially significant” finding: Officers who had taken the customized de-escalation course received fewer complaints or were accused of fewer serious injuries than those who had not.

“When officers [who went through the training] are involved in use of force encounters, they are 58 percent less likely to injure citizens compared to officers who did not receive the de-escalation training,” the study said.

The study also noted that the Tempe department already offered de-escalation training to its officers, so the introduction of a new course didn’t break new ground. But the existence of previous courses made the reductions from the “customized” training even more noteworthy, suggesting that earlier courses were not as effective when they weren’t geared to officer needs and perceptions about safety.

The researchers observed that the training officers received was a significant factor in altering the traditional police approach to dealing with tense encounters with civilians: It taught them that “knowing when to walk away” could not only reduce tensions, but also ensure officer safety and wellness.

 “Traditional police training emphasizes the importance of maintaining control of a situation,” the study said. “Compromise is akin to relinquishing some police authority.”

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But officers who engaged in de-escalation reported they were more likely to use non-traditional tactics and to see the value of compromise for peacefully resolving encounters, according to the study.

Corresponding positive results were found among citizens who interacted with the officers.

A confidential survey found that citizens interacting with officers who has taken de-escalation training were more likely to agree that the officer treated them fairly, acted “professionally,” and were more likely to be satisfied by how the situation was resolved.

Citizens who interacted with these officers were also more likely to agree that the officer had a calm tone, used appropriate language and “actively listened” to them, the survey found.

“Taken together, the results from citizen interviews provide powerful evidence regarding the impact of the de-escalation training,” the researcher said.

They concluded that the “the training significantly altered the ways in which officers handled citizen encounters.”

This report was first published by The Crime Report.

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What officers think about de-escalation likely affects how willing they are to use it, researchers said.