Defensive Strategies

De-Escalate:
Police Are Doing It.
Should You?

By Lyn Bates,
Contributing Editor

Every time a mentally ill person is killed by police, the aftermath is difficult―for the families and friends of those killed who wonder whether it had to happen, and for police who were following their training. Everyone realizes that there is a difference between someone who is depressed and a drug dealer resisting arrest.
The police “continuum of force” used to go up or down depending on the way the person they were dealing with acted or resisted. Not obeying a command like “Show your hands” or “Back off” or “Get out of the car” meant an officer could raise the level of force s/he was using from verbal to hands-on to pepper spray to baton to gun. Experienced criminals knew the routine, and would usually comply before the “shoot” level was reached. Innocent people experiencing their first interaction with police would generally comply, too.
That works pretty well, but not for some people who are mentally ill. Police have long known about “suicide by cop” situations, where a depressed person will menace the officer with a gun or knife until the officer is forced to shoot them.
Mentally ill people are incredibly challenging for police. Is that woman not showing her hands because she thinks the only safe place for her hands to be is in her pockets? Is the man resisting arrest because he’s a felon and this is his third strike, or is he behaving that way because he is off his meds?
Traditionally police, and well trained private citizens with guns, have learned concepts like AOJ to determine whether using lethal force against someone is justified. A is Ability―does this person have a weapon, weapon-like object or physical capability (age, strength, health) that mean he has the ability to seriously harm or kill me? O is Opportunity―is this person close enough or positioned with a gun so that he has the opportunity to harm me? J is Jeopardy―is that person behaving in a way (verbal threats, coming closer, not showing his hands, waving his weapon…) that lets me know I am in jeopardy because it is clear that he intends to harm me.
Instead of just following someone up the scale of the continuum of force scale until A, O, and J are satisfied and a shooting occurs, what if police could intervene in some way to get the person to go back down the scale or stay at the same level? That would be de-escalating the situation. That’s what the public is calling on police to learn to do, and many police departments are starting to comply.
There is also an emotional continuum, for both people involved in an altercation. It might start with understanding and calm compliance and move through irritation, insecurity, anxiety and anger to extreme fear. Recognizing where someone is on this emotional scale is important, particularly if you have some techniques for helping people move back down, not go higher.
It isn’t easy. What should police do instead, given the fact that only some mentally ill people will comply? Force Science Institute, one of the leading organizations that trains police in the use of force has two full days of training that addresses this issue.
What are the kinds of situations you, not the police, might be in? Strangers acting hinkey. Mentally ill or not? You probably won’t be able to determine an instant, correct diagnosis.
You might find yourself dealing with someone who feels anxious, ashamed, depressed, angry, or overwhelmed by what is happening to them. They don’t have to be mentally ill to be going through a tough time.
Let’s talk about mentally ill folk first. Most mentally ill people are not violent. Let’s say that again. Most mentally ill people are not violent, so don’t approach every interaction you might have expecting the worst.
Here are some general dos and don’ts.
Relax and stay calm. Your body language and verbal style should be what you hope and expect they will follow. Don’t raise your voice. Be respectful.
Say I-statements like “I am worried that you might fall and get hurt here.” or “I’m feeling crowded,” not you-statements like “You need to back up.” or “You shouldn’t do that.”
Ask questions. Paraphrase answers. “If I understand you correctly, you said, is that what you meant?”
Try not to criticize or blame.
Find a way to align with and acknowledge their feelings and what they are saying, even if you don’t understand or believe them.
Don’t force eye contact. It might be threatening.
You can find many more suggestions online at the websites of organizations that help people understand and deal with the mentally ill.
Of course, be prepared to change course, rapidly, if things don’t go well.
Ask yourself, seriously whether you would be willing to shoot someone who is mentally ill, or whether a different method of force might be preferable. Many of us have moral qualms about killing someone who is mentally ill.
A little advance planning is in order here. What about a stun gun, Taser, or pepper spray instead? Those alternatives might be better in many situations. I carry pepper spray as well as a gun so I will always be able to choose which to use against anyone.
I’m not a mental health professional, and you probably aren’t either, but you and I have more flexibility than police in dealing with the situations and people we might face. A good first step is just remembering that most mentally ill people aren’t violent, and go from there.