'Lost in transition': How science can help inform evidence-based de-escalation practices

De-escalation is often presented as a panacea for use of force reduction, but research on the effectiveness of de-escalation techniques is limited


One of the most prominent police reform initiatives in the U.S. focuses on “de-escalation.” The definitions of de-escalation vary, but the basic techniques and tactics are linked with the following words/phrases: communication, creating distance, using cover, creating time and the use of additional resources. All these concepts are intended to mitigate use of force incidents.

De-escalation techniques/tactics are often presented as a panacea for use of force reduction, but research on the effectiveness of de-escalation is limited and the concept lacks a rigorous analysis of the factors that influence successful outcomes. The lack of empirical validation aside, the concept of de-escalation has garnered significant support, in part, due to videos like this one in Camden NJ where an uncooperative knife-wielding subject is taken into custody without the use of deadly force.

However, instances of de-escalation should not be immune from the same after-action scrutiny applied to other policing techniques and tactics. Therefore, rather than conclude that a positive outcome equals sound practices (e.g., outcome bias), the Camden video and many others like it should provide a springboard for discussion on human capabilities and limitations. This discussion could enhance de-escalation techniques/tactics and further mitigate the use of deadly force.

Dr. Taylor’s results indicate that transition times are not insignificant when considering the speed with which a threat can emerge.
Dr. Taylor’s results indicate that transition times are not insignificant when considering the speed with which a threat can emerge.

Perception-response-time (PRT) research in policing

Dr. Paul Taylor, an advocate for the application of human factors science in policing, recognized little research has been conducted on the time it takes to transition between various force options – an important tactical consideration during attempts to deescalate.

Addressing this research gap, Dr. Taylor, Paul Sipe and Lon Bartel measured the time it took a sample of active-duty law enforcement officers to transition from a TASER X2 (on target) to a handgun (holstered) and fire at a target. The study also measured the time to transition from a handgun to a TASER in the same manner. The following results might surprise you:

  • Firearm to TASER average = 4.7s (range 2.4s – 9.3s).
  • TASER to firearm average = 2.49s (range .81s – 6.8s).

Dr. Taylor presents his results in the light of previous research on the speed of a suspect attack, as well as the ability for officers to respond to a deadly threat. For example, listed below are some of the average times it takes a “suspect” to move and fire a handgun:

  • Draw and fire from the rear waistband (m = 0.78s), [1]
  • Raise a weapon from the thigh and fire (m = 0.36s), [2]
  • Move a weapon from the head and fire (m = 0.40s), [2] and 
  • Present a weapon and fire from a prone position (m = 0.61s). [3]

Dr. Taylor’s results indicate that transition times are not insignificant when considering the speed with which a threat can emerge. These times should be taken into consideration in both establishing police tactics and the post hoc investigations of police use of force events.

[Police1 reader poll results: Does your agency provide training on the transition between a handgun to a TASER?]

One might assume the easy answer to this problem is for officers to remain armed with a handgun when de-escalating armed or potentially armed subjects. However, the following research results [4] show the average times to move and fire from common “weapon ready” configurations indicate officers continue to be at a reactionary disadvantage:

  • Fire from behind the leg (bootleg) (m = 1.3s)
  • Fire from high ready (m = 0.83s).
  • Fire from the low ready (m = 0.97s).

The next easy answer to the problem may be found in an officer’s use of ballistic cover. Cover is important but is not the panacea some believe it to be. To a reasonable degree of certainty, inferences can be made from the research on how quickly a subject can close the distance on an officer or their position of cover. For instance, in one study young healthy adults were able to sprint more than 25 feet about 1.6s. [5]

The totality of each unique circumstance notwithstanding, it would be improper to ignore data indicating a position of cover 25 feet away does may not provide sufficient time to perceive a changing threat, decide what to do, and then act. This fact is demonstrated by the tragic death of DART Police Officer Brent Thompson who took a position of cover behind a concrete pillar at least 20 feet from an armed suspect. The suspect rapidly closed the distance, flanked officer Thompson, then shot and killed him.

Lastly, the conversation cannot end without discussing human error under time-compressed situations. In Dr. Taylor’s study, he noted a quarter of participating officers failed to hit the target. This is in line with research finding low accuracy rates (35%) of officers in real-world shootings. Another issue Dr. Taylor reported in his study was that seven officers were unable to draw their weapons from the holster. Additionally, Dr. Taylor told me that most officers fumbled with the transition and had to look at their holsters to draw their weapons. These problematic findings from Taylor’s study may be linked to the 70% of participant officers who reported having never been provided transition training.

In summary, the feasibility of de-escalation and the way its various tactics and techniques are employed should be informed by an evidence-based assessment of the immediacy of the threat. The immediacy of a threat is directly linked to the unique situational and environmental characteristics presented and includes a contextually related understanding of human capabilities and limitations.

Recommendations for de-escalation practices in the field

I spoke with Dr. Taylor about his research and asked what specific implications his research might have for de-escalation practices and if he had any recommendations for police policy, procedure, training, or post-incident investigations. Dr. Taylor made it clear that any direct policy recommendations would be premature at this point, but we discussed some ideas that might be worthy of further examination:

  • Officers should be provided training cycles that include transitions between the handgun and the TASER. Training on transitions should be included in realistic scenarios.
  • PRT research should be included in the development of use of force and de-escalation tactics and training. This can help better inform officer feasibility assessments and weapons deployment, as well as appropriate distance and shielding assessments. The research is also helpful for post-incident investigations.
  • Performance data from both training scenarios and real-world incidents should be collected and examined to further establish evidence-based techniques and procedures for de-escalation.
  • Agencies should be aware of and train officers on the public duty doctrine. This body of knowledge may help officers make better decisions on when and whether to engage in certain circumstances rather than relying upon an ill-informed belief of civil culpability. Empirical evidence suggests that the decision to engage and/or press an otherwise stable scenario through the deployment of a less lethal option can lead to undesirable outcomes. In some cases, it may be reasonable to disengage entirely.

[Police1 reader poll results: Does your agency train de-escalation techniques/tactics inclusive of human factors science (e.g., perception-response time)?]

Conclusion

Requirements to de-escalate are linked with words/phrases such as “communication, creating distance, using cover, creating time and the use of additional resources.” However, reasonable standards for translating these words/phrases into field tactics/techniques may be unclear. The research evidence presented in this article spotlights some rarely discussed complexities associated with de-escalation tactics/techniques that may help in their real-world translation. Be safe.

NEXT: Unintended: A theory of TASER/weapon confusion

References

1. Hontz TA. (1999). Justifying the deadly force response. Police Quarterly, 2(4):462–476.

2. Blair JP, et al. (2011). Reasonableness and reaction time. Police Quarterly, 14(4):323-343.

3. Lewinski W, et al. (2016). The speed of a prone subject. Law Enforcement Executive Forum.

4. Lewinski W, et al. (2015). Ambushes leading cause of officer fatalities – when every second counts: An analysis of officer movement from trained ready tactical positions. Law Enforcement Executive Forum, 15(1).

5. Dysterheft JL, et al. (2013). The influence of start position, initial step type, and usage of a focal point on sprinting performance. International Journal of Exercise Science, 6(4):320-327.

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