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Why de-escalation is a rural cop’s lifeline

A lot can go down when backup is two hours away


In small towns and remote places, de-escalation isn’t a novel skill, and it isn’t part of “community policing.” When you are the community and you are the police, it’s a survival skill.

Photo/Steven Beltran

De-escalation is the repeating note in the battle cry for police reform.

As 2020 grinds on, even retail employees are adding training for defusing aggressive interactions with customers but the focus remains on law enforcement.

Big departments have big budgets and get a lot of play in the news when they add specialty training to the syllabus. Small and rural departments, on the other hand, frequently struggle to keep up with minimum required training so their officers get creative, and they learn as they go.

A Facebook page dedicated to rural law enforcement asked its readers to: “Tell me something rural officers know about de-escalation that urban officers don’t.”

The answers were informative, sometimes poignant, often funny.

When you are far away from backup

Many comments centered on officers clearly understanding their own situation: that they work alone, far from backup (sometimes minutes, often hours), and that the suspects know that too.

For example:

“Urban officers can have 10 backup units on scene in seconds but out where I work your backup could be 30 miles away. We learn how to talk to people and if that doesn’t work, then we are prepared to rock and roll if our hand is called.”

“When working as a warden, certain times of the year everyone you contact is armed. Often, it’s a group. You have to approach people with respect and a smile. You can always go from there.”

“I think it’s that small-town cops know most of the people we deal with. Also, we understand we may be dealing with folks by ourselves. I don’t mind fighting but it’s a whole lot easier to talk someone into handcuffs.”

“Don’t ‘puff up’ and have an understanding with suspects that they will get respect if they act responsibly. There have been multiple occasions wherein someone I arrested last week had my back when things went south with someone else this week. Finally, don’t make promises or threats you can’t keep.”

“Rather talk to you for 5 hours than fight with you for five minutes ‒ best mentality there is.”

“Pick your battles, if you get into a fight your backup could be 30 minutes to 2 hours.

Treat ’em like people. Your mouth is your most powerful weapon, the skills are perishable. If they still want to fight, try to look happy about it: play the mind game.”

“When your backup is over 20 minutes out, you don’t rush into a scene and start running your mouth to someone twice your size and high on drugs. You strategize, converse, make friends, and then get down to the dirty work/arrest when help gets there. No use rushing your next fight/injury.”

“Rural officers understand clearly (that) de-escalation is an art that will ‒ not may, but will ‒ save your life one day. Alone, with backup 30 minutes or an hour more away, you will either perfect the art or suffer the consequences.”

“Backup ain’t coming when you don’t have radio reception, so if de-escalation fails, it’s ok to back out and regroup.”

One reader summarized the idea with this pithy gem: “Don’t let your alligator mouth make promises your tadpole ass can’t keep.”

Leveraging existing relationships

Other answers concentrated on relationship building and leveraging existing relationships in ways urban officers may never manage. Mom, for instance, could have her own whole category.

“When you have no backup, no radio communication, when your suspect is your next-door neighbor, you have to be more human. You can’t act arrogant or act like a bad ass. City officers might live 60 miles away from their patrol area. Rural officers live in remote isolated communities. Kindness and fairness go a long way. For a rural officer, suspects are not faceless strangers. The suspects are neighbors they see in the grocery store, feed store, bank, dinner and church.”

“You know the perp’s name. Your kids probably play ball on the same team.”

“Sometimes how you treated them or their family on a completely unrelated contact six months prior can save you from injuries and mountains of paperwork.”

“Knowing the clientele and the area well, knowing the gossip and being able to relate at the human level of two folks just bullshitting vs that of a deputy and a citizen in crisis.”

“Threatening to call a grown man’s mom can be more effective than a TASER or pepper spray. That’s the God’s honest truth. A man once told me he’d rather I just put him in jail than call his momma.”

“My best was when two brothers were drunk and fighting. I said, ‘You know, Dwayne, when your Momma hears about this it’s not gonna be pretty.’ They stopped and I drove them home. Southern logic.”

“If it is that rural, once they hear you’re gonna call their mama they get off the roof real quick.”

Animal encounters

Some bits of wisdom were animal-specific, befitting service in rangeland and forest:

“You cannot talk reason to an angry grizzly bear.” (Probably from a game warden.)

Also, “Trying to get a mad cow back on their property isn’t always easy. Luckily, they don’t realize how big they are.” Therefore, “Find the owner and don’t piss off the cow on your own.”

Lessons learned over time

Many suggestions were practical techniques discovered over time:

“Property ownership is a keen right, and one that if properly addressed, such as entering it with permission can de-escalate a situation rapidly. Affording property respect moves mountains at times.”

“Giving a mean drunk a pinch of Grizzly (or Kodiak or Copenhagen) will often calm them down enough to go home without issue.”

“Let a guy have a smoke before you put the cuffs on and take him to jail.”

“Rural officers learn the best de-escalation from working in a jail dealing with inmates before they hit the road. That is where you really get to know the people in your area of patrol. That’s where I’ve learned most of my verbal judo skills.”

“Those fellers sitting at the bar, even though you arrested them last weekend, could be your backup this weekend when all goes to shit. Treat them with respect.”

“I talk in a calm tone and they all say I have a look that makes them uncomfortable when I just look at them and say nothing.”

More skin in the game

And finally:

“Building rapport before the day you need it is everything: a verbal warning, a conversation at Casey’s, or some other positive voluntary contact so they know you. Even if you’ve arrested them dozens of times, make them think you’re their friend. Also, how to stall. Everyone calms down eventually.”

“I’ve worked when we only had two deputies on after a certain time at night. Our county is almost 1,000 square miles. I think treating people the way you would want to be treated is key. The badge doesn’t make you; you’re supposed to make that badge stand for something. Like some of the others stated, you never know who you may have to depend on in your time of need.”

“You’re dealing with people who live in your community. You want what is best for the entire community, even the offender. Rural officers have more skin in the game.”

“Humanity and humility work wonders. Together or separate, either way.”

And lastly: “Cowboy hats should have their own level in the force continuum.”

In small towns and remote places, de-escalation isn’t a novel skill, and it isn’t part of “community policing.” When you are the community and you are the police, it’s a survival skill. It turns out that de-escalating is just communicating effectively, and getting everybody home in one piece whenever possible.

You’ll see them again on the next shift, after all, and at the bank and the grocery store and the peewee football field. That’s how it works for the rural cop.

NEXT: Why officers’ lives depend on dispelling the cliche that ‘nothing ever happens in small towns’

Kathleen Dias writes features and news analysis on topics of concern to law enforcement professionals serving in rural and remote locations. She uses her background in writing, teaching and marketing to advocate for professional levels of training and equipment for rural officers, open channels of communication for isolated departments, and dispel myths about rural policing. She’s had a front-row seat observing rural agencies – local, state and federal – from the Sierra foothills to California’s notorious Emerald Triangle, for more than 30 years.