Training day: How to be each other’s keeper
Officers must be trained in how to verbally de-escalate and physically intervene when another officer loses emotional control
This article originally appeared in the Police1 Digital Edition, "Police Performance: Developing a Culture of Accountability." Download your copy here.
Do officers have a responsibility to intervene when a fellow officer loses emotional control or uses excessive force? The answer is obvious: Officers have an ethical, moral and in many cases, policy-driven reason to do so. But why is it that many officers do not intervene or attempt to de-escalate? Here are some reasons:
- Peer pressure
- Not recognizing they are empowered to act
- Lack of training/understanding
- Agency culture
What if Derek Chauvin’s fellow officers had intervened to make sure that once George Floyd was restrained, that he was immediately moved to his side or an upright position? Sadly, there are too many examples of officers not intervening when other officers lose their cool or use excessive force. Appropriate and timely intervention can save a fellow officer and their department from personal and professional embarrassment, loss of community trust, and civil and criminal prosecution.
In these situations, officers are either part of the problem or part of the solution. Officers must be authorized and trained on how to verbally de-escalate and physically intervene regardless of rank or seniority. Such intervention requires fortitude and both professional and personal courage. A "duty to intervene" training day can help develop these intervention skills.
Duty to intervene training scenarios
Each training scenario requires role players, an evaluator and a safety officer.
Before the training, your agency must develop a department-wide verbal intervention signal. At the sheriff’s office I retired from the intervention signal was “your shoes are untied.” That would be the signal to move from the contact position to a position of cover or to move away from the core event. Whatever the signal, your department must develop one.
A backup officer (trainee) is sent to a local post office to back up an officer (role player) who had been dispatched for a suspicious person call.
Upon their arrival, they observe the contact officer talking with a man in the parking lot, who has his cellphone in hand filming the interaction. The man had been lawfully filming post office activities from a public sidewalk.
The first officer is arguing with the man, demanding his ID and that the man stop filming him. The man is refusing and loudly protests the violation of his First Amendment rights. The contact officer then moves in close to the man and attempts to forcefully remove the cellphone from his hand.
In this case, both the backup officer and the first responding officer are aware of the verbal intervention signal.
- Request for non-emergency backup.
- Backup officer’s announcement of their presence.
- Use of the verbal intervention signal.
- Soft physical contact to the officers’ elbow, shoulder, or duty belt to provide safe separation.
- Appropriate use of distance to separate the officer from the core event.
- Request or notification of supervision.
Scenario 2: Traffic stop
The backup officer (trainee) arrives to find the officer (role player) who initiated a traffic stop in a loud verbal confrontation with the driver of the stopped car, along the roadside. The first officer had moved in close and is verbally abusive to the driver, who loudly complains to the backup officer about the officer’s behavior.
As the backup officer approaches the scene, the first officer accesses their baton (foam training baton) and starts to strike the driver on their arms and legs. The driver then drops to the ground into a fetal position loudly yelling for help, as the officer continues to strike them with the baton.
In this case, the backup officer and the officer who conducted the traffic stop are aware of the prearranged intervention signal.
- Immediate request for backup.
- Backup officer’s loud announcement of their presence.
- Use of the verbal intervention signal.
- Physical contact or restraint to provide safe separation.
- Maintain control of the officer’s baton.
- Appropriate use of distance to separate the officer away from the core event.
- Provide aide to the driver.
- Request for medical assistance.
- Request or notification of supervision.
We used this same scenario when I served on a use of force training committee for the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services. We were training use of force instructors from all over the state at the time. It went very well.
IDentifying storm warnings
While it is important to be aware of warning signs in other officers, it is equally important to be self-aware. Identifying ahead of time the signs that can indicate an officer is being triggered is critical.
These “storm warnings” can include:
- Loss of emotional or physical control
- Flushed face
- A negative change in tone or demeanor
- Uncontrollable yelling or screaming
- Using profanity
- Overly militaristic behavior
- Spitting while talking
- Moving in too close
- Rigid body language
- Making bogus, unrealistic threats
- Stammering, stuttering or not making sense
- Being physically abusive or aggressive
- Zoned out
- Being overly calm and cool, out of context for the situation.
How to intervene
Once storm-like behaviors are recognized it is critical to act as quickly as is safely possible.
- Call for backup. Depending on the situation, it could be exceedingly difficult to manage your fellow officer and the core event.
- Move in slow, from an angle. If possible, identify yourself and softly touch the officer’s shoulder, telling them that you have got it. Ask them to take a step back. Verbally reassure them that everything is OK. If they are in a high emotional state, it is best to get them as far away as possible from the core event. Distance can be your friend. The further the officer is moved away from the core event, the quicker de-escalation can occur.
If touching the shoulder does not have the desired effect, here are two alternative approaches:
- Move in slow, identify yourself. Softly contact the officer’s elbow to escort them away from the core event.
- Move in slow, identify yourself. Grab the back of the officer’s duty belt and gently pull them back and away while maintaining physical contact.
- Be prepared for physical resistance. If the officer is physically violent, restraint techniques may be required to get things under control. Be aware that they may respond in anger or be assaultive.
- After the event. Once the officer has calmed down, encourage self-accountability and recommend the officer self-reports to their immediate supervisor. It is always best if the supervisor hears about the incident from the officer involved first.
Intervention in action
There are some good examples of officers intervening.
During the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, fellow officers intervened when an officer unnecessarily pointed a rifle at media and protestors. One officer grabbed his belt from the back, while the other gently took control of one of his elbows to walk him to safety.
In April 2021, a Southern California officer physically intervened when a fellow officer punched a handcuffed woman.
There are also cases where intervening officers were assaulted during interventions of excessive force. In 2006 a Buffalo, New York officer was punched and injured by a fellow officer as she intervened to stop the officer from choking a handcuffed suspect. She was also fired and later reinstated.
Most officers agree with the premise of intervention. A 2017 Pew Research study found that while most officers say their use of force policies and procedures are appropriate and helpful, 84% said that fellow officers should be required to intervene when they believe another officer is about to use unnecessary force.
Training should take place to provide officers both the verbal and physical skills they will need to intervene. Doing so will encourage and develop a culture of peer accountability; enhance public perception and trust; prevent embarrassment; and reduce civil and criminal liability. If we genuinely care about each other, our profession and our communities, then we will truly strive to be each other’s keepers.