Training can reduce use of force and keep officers safer

You don’t need to be an experienced officer to understand that use of force is a complex, multifaceted topic. The degree of verbal and physical force is influenced by a supervisor’s management style and the officer’s own education and experience. The style and personality of an officer, as well as that of their department, can have a major impact on how often force is used.

While police are generally given legal discretion to apply force in situations where a suspect might pose a threat—see the landmark case, Tennessee v. Garner— departmental rules often place stricter, or at least more specific, guidelines on acceptable use of force than the broad allowance set forth by law. And while these rules ostensibly guide departments on the use of force, there’s also the fact that rules and regulations aren’t always at the forefront of an officer’s thinking in a high-tension, snap-decision situation where the officer feels force could be necessary—a huge distinction in an era of digital video and constant scrutiny on officer behavior.

This is where training comes into play. By developing and honing an officer’s sense of when to use force and how much to apply when it’s necessary, use-of-force situations and the moments leading up to them are less likely to end in a regrettable or unnecessary outcome. In other words, it is reasonable to presume that the more pre- and in-service training an officer receives, the more tools they have in use-of-force situations. The nature of that training, however, can lead to different outcomes depending on content and other factors.

Content of training may influence outcomes

Force-reduction training regimens are nothing new for departments. One National Institute of Justice-funded study says some 60 percent of the 950 researched departments made “mediation skills/conflict management” training available for officers back in 2010; of those, 39 percent made this sort of training “mandatory for all,” according to the document. More recently, well-known departments like the Chicago Police Department have made news implementing similar mandatory training policies.

However, it’s also fair to say these topics don’t always receive the same emphasis as other critical aspects of police work. Statistics from a Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) report confirm this, to some degree. When 18 percent of the average in-service hour is spent on firearms training, 13 percent on defensive tactics, and only 5 percent on de-escalation, it’s easy to see where an officer’s mind might first turn in situations where force, ultimately, is not the only option.

To some degree, this thought—that the style and specific focus of training can have an impact on the outcomes an officer arrives at—may be one of the most critical aspects governing the intersection of training and use of force. Just as the officer who has more tools at their disposal has more options to turn to in a tense situation, the officer who has spent more time examining these tools will most likely display a better mastery when the time comes to deploy them. It’s the reason de-escalation, simulation, and classwork-and-drill courses alike all tend to focus on slowing down and assessing the situation: instilling force as a potential option instead of the final option gives officers more ways to view a given event, and more time instilling this basic concept means more time to accept and integrate it.

De-escalation training enhances officer skill before force becomes necessary

To be clear, defensive training is important and officer safety is paramount. The necessity of force will remain part of policing, and that makes training on acceptable use necessary. However, the tenets of de-escalation training may give officers alternative strategies to employ in situations where force could otherwise look like the only solution.

De-escalation training provides tools to avoid confrontations that could result in officer harm. For example, officers can be better trained to slow the situation down, taking more time to assess before becoming involved. As officers better understand how they react—both physically and emotionally—to stressful situations, they can learn to make better use of space and time instead of “compressing” both as a rule. With more time to think, officers are better able to imagine safer outcomes.

The ability to stay calm and communicate can be a critical skill to deploy in tense situations. Learning when to raise one’s voice and when to take things down a peg is basic police psychology; de-escalation training could take this basic skill and further develop it, making it even more viable and valuable in the field.

De-escalation training isn’t without its criticisms, however. As one New York Times piece notes, some police feel less effective in the wake of mandatory de-escalation procedures, and more than a few officers bristle at the idea of departments “[limiting] officer discretion.” Recommendations that put a high value on de-escalation like the above-linked PERF research have drawn criticism for wanting to completely retool what police do, which some claim are reforms aimed at silencing critics while potentially putting officers at increased risk.

Simulation, role play training may hold promise

De-escalation training can be delivered in a variety of ways, and simulators and role playing are two ways that show promise in reducing use of force. Research on Canadian police officers from Carleton University notes that simulators may be more effective than alternative approaches.

When it comes to reducing incidents with potentially permanent outcomes, many of the benefits simulation can offer are obvious. Besides giving trainees and continuing education officers a chance to experience situations similar to those they might encounter in the field, the paper says, errors committed in a simulation environment can be treated as learning situations or points of appraisal. The officer who commits an error in training could fall back on that simulated experience, should a similar incident arise in the field, and apply different strategies – perhaps those imparted during a follow-up meeting with an instructor or repeat of the training scenario.

In order to get the most benefits from simulation exercises, however, the paper argues that current training regimens must be changed. An optimal simulation battery should take course throughout a training schedule, with new scenarios only opening up after officers have demonstrated a mastery of their current slate. More, the paper says officers should spend more time in general in simulations – this as opposed to “condensing an equal number of training hours […] into a single session” –  and feedback after-the-fact should be reduced as the officer progresses through the list of scenarios.

If the Omaha Police Department’s successes are any indication, these changes – or, at the very least, the introduction of simulation and role-play as a core component of training – may be worth making. Despite use-of-force numbers dropping since 2010, the department’s implementation of a VirTra judgment simulator at their public safety training center in 2013 has apparently resulting in a continuation of this trend. Total use-of-force incidents have dropped from 545 in 2010 to 401 at the end of 2015, according to numbers presented in the Omaha World-Herald, while excessive force complaints went from 45 to 9 in the same years, respectively.

Simulations are also benchmarking and analysis tools. Data collected from observing officers in simulators and role plays can be used to better assign roles, responsibilities, and even geographical locations, further helping departments lower instances of use of force and better serve their communities.

Training can influence use-of-force outcomes in multiple ways—finding an optimal solution can be difficult

No amount of training can cover every aspect of police work, and it’s hard to say any research or study will ever encapsulate and solve every possible use-of-force situation because of this. Even within training, there are variables, as the above-mentioned Carleton research notes: when the number of days between training programs, style and frequency of feedback, and numerous other factors can have an effect on retention – and thus potentially impact what, exactly, officers recall when falling back on training becomes important – it’s fair to say finding an optimal regimen that matches with the day-to-day realities of training is a challenge.

However, there is certainly room to improve training content and delivery that will bridge the gap between conceptual and actual police encounters in the field. Every tool imparted to a trainee or experienced officer in the form of de-escalation training is another they can consider deploying before moving up to the continuum, thus enhancing their discretion in critical moments.

Use of force by law enforcement remains a controversial and complex issue. Officer and suspect safety, financial impact, and public relations are all motivations for the department wanting to lower the occurrence of force. By giving officers extra training devised to lower these occurrences, departments can sate these motivations – and serve themselves, their respective citizenries, and their officers in the process.

Posted on Oct 17, 2016