Police de-escalation training project a team effort

Partnership between Arizona State University and Tempe PD yielded a curriculum designed to help officers keep contacts with the public peaceful and productive


By Michael D. White, Ph.D., and Carlena Orosco, M.A.

Though de-escalation has long been a cornerstone of policing, the topic has received significant attention since 2014. De-escalation has been discussed by the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, the Police Executive Research Forum and police leadership organizations through a National Consensus Policy on Use of Force. However, there is virtually no research on de-escalation. As a result, we do not have a good understanding of what it is (and isn’t), or whether it is effective.

In 2017, the Tempe (Arizona) Police Department (TPD) and researchers from Arizona State University (ASU) received funding through the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) Smart Policing Initiative (SPI) to design, deliver and evaluate a customized de-escalation training program. Below we describe the project.

Design

The TPD leadership decided early on that they did not want to use an existing off-the-shelf de-escalation training. Rather, they wanted to design training customized for their officers and community.

Over an 18-month period, the Tempe team engaged in two curriculum-building activities: sending officers to other training and learning from the experts in TPD to “harness local expertise.”

Sending officers to other de-escalation training

The TPD sent officers to 22 different de-escalation trainings. Some were online, some were local and many were out-of-state. Officers attended some of the most popular training, such as T3, CIT and PERF's ICAT, as well as training from specific departments (e.g., LAPD). Officers who attended the training completed an evaluation form and reported back to the Tempe team. For each training, the team discussed the most relevant components that should be incorporated into the Tempe curriculum.

Harnessing local expertise from Tempe’s “top de-escalators”

To harness the local expertise in TPD, all sworn personnel in field operations were asked to anonymously nominate three co-workers they considered highly skilled at de-escalation. This process resulted in a list of 136 officers who were nominated at least once. All sergeants in field operations reviewed the list of 136 officers and provided their own top 10 list. From these lists, the Tempe team identified 14 top de-escalators. The ASU researchers then spent 6 months with those officers including dozens of ride-alongs, individual interviews and focus groups. The ASU researchers documented the tactics employed by the experts.

The Tempe team created a curriculum committee including instructional designers from ASU, TPD training staff, field operations personnel at various ranks, several top de-escalators, a representative from the Tempe Officers Association and the ASU researchers. The curriculum committee took all the information gathered and created the curriculum.

The Tempe de-escalation curriculum

The Tempe curriculum emphasizes officer safety. It is also grounded in the LAPD’s PATROL model: Planning, Assessment, Time, Redeploy, Other Resources, Lines of Communication.

The Tempe training defines de-escalation as:

Techniques used to gain compliance with the goal of reducing violence or aggression. This can be accomplished through application of the PATROL model, communication, the use of appropriate force, and/or other reasonable techniques.

Note: Officers should not compromise their safety or increase the risk of physical harm to the public when applying de-escalation techniques.

The full-day training (about 10 hours) focuses on a range of topics highlighted in Figure 1.

Figure 1
Figure 1

The training has four guiding pillars:

  • Pre-care: Personal life, work/life balance, sleep, proactive care, coping mechanisms, resources.
  • Self-management: Education and training, seeking additional skills, knowing when you are having a bad day, mental health.
  • Managing resources: Relieving a colleague when needed (tapping out), awareness of resources, communication (with citizens, dispatch and fellow officers), setting the tone and energy.
  • Resiliency: Post-incident debrief, time to decompress, culture change, peer support, CISM.

Deliver

In February/March 2020, the Tempe team delivered the training in a series of one-day sessions to half of the field operations as part of a squad-based randomized control trial. The instructors included TPD training unit personnel, a few of the top de-escalators and outside experts from ASU.

To reinforce key principles, TPD’s training unit has so far created five online refresher training sessions that cover key aspects of the curriculum and emphasize the PATROL model. Officers view this online training with their squad during roll calls, or during officers’ own time (approximately two and four months after the training, and monthly as of May 2021).

Evaluate

ASU researchers are comparing outcomes among officers who received the training and those who did not. The evaluation is ongoing but preliminary findings indicate significant impact:

  • Trained officers place greater importance on compromise, and self-reported greater use of compromise, maintaining officer safety and knowing when to walk away. For more details see our article and SPI summary.
  • Review of body-worn camera footage shows trained officers were significantly:
    • - Less likely to use a condescending/patronizing tone with the citizen.   
    • - More likely to attempt to build rapport with the citizen.
    • - Less likely to fail to transfer control to another officer, if necessary.                      
    • - Less likely to use charged/imposing body language (e.g., unnecessarily had hand on firearm).
    • - More likely to resolve the encounter informally, especially not issuing a ticket/citation.
  • Phone interviews with hundreds of citizens who had a recent encounter with a Tempe officer show the training significantly altered the ways in which officers handled encounters. Of the 28 variables measured, 16 showed statistically significant differences favoring trained officers.
  • Citizen injuries during use of force encounters were significantly less likely among trained officers (11.2%) compared to officers who did not get the training (26.2%).

LESSONS LEARNED

The Tempe project offers several lessons for agencies interested in de-escalation training:

  • The success of the Tempe project is explained, in large part, by the intensive process to create the training. TPD created a project committee that included individuals from units throughout the department. Everyone had a seat at the table. Everyone bought into the project. TPD also took the time to examine and pull selectively from other available de-escalation training.
  • TPD learned a great deal from the peer-nominated top de-escalators regarding what works and what doesn’t. Those officers also served as “embedded champions” who assisted with messaging and clarified misconceptions surrounding the training.
  • TPD hired professional instructional designers to assist with creating the curriculum.
  • One of the most common concerns regarding de-escalation is that it puts officers at risk by restricting their use of force. TPD overcame this concern by grounding its curriculum in officer safety, health and wellness. These concepts were infused throughout the entire daylong training.
  • TPD recognized the need to supplement the original classroom training with refresher online training that reinforced key aspects of de-escalation. Some of these skills likely diminish over time, and follow-up training can reduce that effect.
  • TPD partnered with researchers at ASU to implement a research design that would rigorously measure the impact of the training. Researchers became Tempe Police Volunteers and had full access to department data, including body-worn camera footage. The researchers were part of the team from day 1, and their evaluation provides evidence about what happened.

For more details, see our article and SPI summary.


About the authors

Michael D. White, Ph.D., is a professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University and is associate director of ASU's Center for Violence Prevention and Community Safety. Prior to entering academia, Dr. White worked as a deputy sheriff in Pennsylvania.

Carlena Orosco, M.A., is a doctoral candidate in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University where she works as a research assistant in the Center for Violence Prevention and Community Safety. She is also employed full-time as an analyst in the Strategic Planning, Analysis & Research Center (SPARC) at Tempe Police Department. Prior to joining Tempe PD, she worked for nine years as a police dispatcher for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

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