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After the fatal Charlotte police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott – The importance for police and all people to practice de-escalation

After the Charlotte police killing of Keith Lamont Scott

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The United States still has too much of a wild, wild west approach about violence, stemming from the days when people carried firearms as they pushed into the western frontier, and as they lived in places where police were far away and when no phones existed to call police in the first place.

Shoot first and ask questions later too often dwarfs the concept of de-escalation. Shooting, tasing, and other forms of violent response can be swift, can disable the other person, and gets the message across clearly. De-escalation requires risk, patience, tolerance, self-confidence, understanding, empathy, and compassion.

Soon after I became a public defender lawyer twenty-five years ago, I attended a criminal defense lawyers dinner that included a panel of police and criminal defense lawyers talking about police stops and their interactions with suspects. At least one of the police officers emphasized at the podium, and afterwards when I spoke with him, how dangerous it is “out there”. Yes, we have too much violence in society, but if police are going to move about civilians all tensed up, that does not serve de-escalation.

The aftermath of the September 20, 2016, fatal Charlotte police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott includes police insistence that Mr. Scott was displaying a handgun, and his family’s claiming the opposite. (Finally released police video footage of the shooting is here.) Even assuming for argument’s sake that Mr. Scott had a handgun displayed, North Carolina police already know that its state supreme court for nearly one century has upheld the general right to openly carry firearms (aside from losing that right over certain convictions), so merely seeing an openly armed person is not by itself justification for police to use deadly force in North Carolina (nor anywhere else, for that matter).

Even assuming for argument’s sake that Mr. Scott was armed and did not follow alleged police commands to drop the weapon, police still have alternatives to using deadly force.

How well are police in the United States trained on de-escalating tense situations, persuading people to drop their arms, and only using deadly force after less dangerous efforts fail?

Compare the three years of police training required in the Netherlands, Norway and Finland to the average nineteen weeks of training for American police. That nineteen weeks of training must cram in a whirlwind on such topics as weapons training, stops, search and seizure, arrests, Miranda, DWI, drafting search warrant applications, writing police reports, drug detection and testing, dealing with prosecutors, and testifying in court. Those nineteen weeks could hardly cover much time on de-escalating tense situations and avoidance of using deadly force .

With our overgrown criminal justice system, we are not going to be able to weed out enough police who do not have the right temperament and ability to de-escalate tensions and to avoid unnecessary deadly force. De-escalation is a learned skill that is best cultivated from childhood, starting with reaching peace, calm and balance within oneself. It is far from farfetched that former police officer and current police officer trainer Cheri Maples encourages those qualities in police. (As an important aside, I send healing thoughts to Cheri, after she was seriously injured when a van hit her while biking earlier this month.)

Policing apparently is a popular career for many who leave the military, but military training is heavily about using force rather than talking with the enemy on the battlefield. Consequently, those transitioning from the military to policing may not have brought sufficient de-escalation techniques nd abilities with them.

Although I am no fan of Singapore’s authoritarian government nor of melodrama, its recent police propaganda video well emphasizes the importance for police to de-escalate tense situations and to display genuine empathy with even dangerously disturbed people. In this video, the police negotiator approaches the suspect as if they are in the situation together, rather than in an us-versus-them mode. Yes, such an approach in this video could prove more deadly for the officer than killing the suspect at the first opportunity, but if the police shot misses the target, the missed shot might hit an innocent person, and the suspect might cause even more harm.

Police and everyone else must learn to practice de-escalating and avoiding tense situations, whether that be verbal or physical de-escalation. Doing so is not a sign of weakness. We still have our other weapons handy when de-escalation does not work.