World / Crime & Legal

Ferguson lesson: U.S. police need to learn 'de-escalation' tactics

by Gene Johnson and Eric Tucker


The grand jury that declined to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson was focused on whether he might have acted in self-defense when he shot and killed unarmed, 18-year-old Michael Brown.

But the case raises another question: Could Wilson have avoided getting into a spot where he had to make that split-second, life-or-death decision?

Police departments around the United States have in recent years stepped up their training in “de-escalation,” the art of defusing a tense situation with a word or a gesture instead of being confrontational or reaching for a weapon.

Proponents, including the Department of Justice, say the approach can improve trust and understanding between police and residents, curtail the unnecessary use of force and improve the safety of officers and civilians alike.

“We haven’t taught officers to just walk away,” said Cambridge, Massachusetts, police Commissioner Robert Haas. “But if the only reason a person is acting up is because you’re standing there . . . isn’t that a viable approach?”

Haas and other law enforcement officials said they didn’t want to second-guess Wilson’s actions because they weren’t in his shoes at the time of the Aug. 9 shooting. But, many said, the case should accelerate a national discussion about police culture and the potential for broader training in de-escalation, which is considered especially important in dealing with people experiencing mental health or drug-related crises.

In Ferguson, Missouri, a federal law enforcement team in November held training with St. Louis-area police, including top commanders from Ferguson, on how unintentional bias affects police work. That approach goes hand in hand with de-escalation.

“In every police encounter, the officer and the civilian bring with them and see the world through their experiences. The more these views diverge, the more they immediately see the other as a threat,” said Jenny Durkan, a former U.S. attorney in Seattle who led the effort to curb excessive use of force by city police.

According to Wilson’s grand jury testimony, Brown and a friend were walking down the middle of the street when Wilson drove up and asked them to use the sidewalk. When they declined, he suggested it again. Brown responded by cursing at him, said Wilson, who backed up his vehicle to confront Brown, who was carrying stolen cigars.

Brown shoved the vehicle’s door shut as Wilson tried to open it, and then attacked the officer through the door’s open window, according to Wilson’s account. The officer began shooting, then got out of the car, chased Brown and fired some more shots when Brown turned around.

“My job isn’t to just sit and wait,” Wilson told ABC News.

In its investigations of police agencies, the Justice Department has singled out poor de-escalation tactics.

In a July report on the Newark Police Department in New Jersey, it faulted a “pattern and practice of taking immediate offensive action” rather than acting within the bounds of the Constitution and displaying the “thick skin and patience” needed for the job. In Seattle and Albuquerque, New Mexico, the Justice Department blasted police for too quickly using flashlights, batons or stun guns when force could have been avoided.

A civil rights investigation by the department led to a consent decree in Seattle that overhauled the local police department’s training, putting a premium on de-escalation and bias-free policing.

The department has already launched a similar investigation in Ferguson.

In practice, de-escalation can take many forms, said Seattle police spokesman Sean Whitcomb. Sometimes it means multiple officers respond instead of one, because the larger presence can make excitable subjects realize they’re outnumbered.

But for an officer, it can also mean calmly introducing yourself, listening to what someone is saying and simply relating to them, he said. The use of body cameras can also help, experts say, because officers and civilians alike tend to behave better when they know they’re being recorded.

Still, reducing tension can be easier said than done. A 2012 report from the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based national membership group of police executives, describes challenges in utilizing de-escalation techniques, saying a younger generation of officers accustomed to communicating through email and other electronic media may be less skilled at face-to-face encounters.

And some officers worry about giving away the upper hand.

A group of Seattle police officers sued over the department’s new use of force policy. They said they, too, want to prevent excessive use of force, but said the policy is overly complicated and could endanger officers by requiring them to hesitate before resorting to force. A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit, but the officers have appealed.