In police parlance, de-escalation refers to any number of tactics used to peacefully resolve conflict—or prevent conflict from happening in the first place. In recent months, law enforcement officers and agencies across the United States have been the target of protests and even violence after widely publicized conflicts with civilians, some of which resulted in fatalities. Many experts and observers view de-escalation as a key component in preventing conflicts (major and relatively minor) between police and the populations they serve.
The Gaithersburg Police Department has no track record of major conflicts with city residents. Still, according to Gaithersburg Mayor Jud Ashman, the de-escalation training recently undertaken by the police department will improve and strengthen officers’ ability to effectively respond to any situation.
“We all have seen what’s going on around the country,” Ashman said. “For a while it seemed like every week there was some unfortunate incident between officers and residents. We’re lucky in Gaithersburg not to have had anything like that, but it can happen any time.”
Lieutenant Chris Vance, the department’s administrative bureau commander who coordinated the training for the department in January, indicated that national headlines were one factor that persuaded department leaders to put verbal de-escalation into the training plans for 2017. “Every year we do a different component with training,” Vance said. “We’ve always incorporated de-escalation techniques into that. We want to use the minimal amount of force possible, or no force at all. Every year we look at what we’re doing out on the street. We look at what we’re doing and what’s going on nationally. If there is one area we haven’t addressed, it was verbal de-escalation skills.”
One key tenet of the training is simultaneously simple and complex. As Vance puts it, the training helps police in “not talking like cops.”
“In a lot of situations, we want people to sit down while we’re talking to them because it’s not a threatening position,” Vance explained. “But instead of saying ‘hey, sit down on the curb,’ you can say ‘hey, buddy, how are you doing? We know you don’t want us out here messing with you, but we’re just here for a call, so if you don’t mind, have a seat real quick.’”
Ashman said he participated in some of the training, and came away with new appreciation for the difficulty of police work. “It was a real eye-opener,” he said. “They have to make quick, keen psychological assessments of the actor on the other side. You don’t know what kind of day they’re having. … It’s such a difficult job.”
Vance said it’s still too early to determine whether or to what extent the new de-escalation skills are affecting GPD officer behavior, but he did say “officers were very receptive to it.”
“It’s a valuable tool,” Vance said. “It’s just another defensive tactic. The thing that gets officers home without use of force is their mouth.”