Why the LAPD hostage shooting is a failure of de-escalation policy

We cannot allow the de-escalation narrative to put the safety of criminals before the safety of innocents and the police


On June 16, 2018, officers of the Los Angeles Police Department received a call that a man had stabbed a female victim at a church and was threatening others.

Upon arrival, the officers contacted the suspect, who was armed with a large kitchen knife and carrying a metal folding chair as a shield. The suspect immediately advanced on the officers, who repeatedly ordered the suspect to drop the weapon and surrender.

The suspect did not comply, and continued to advance on the officers with the knife, despite additional warnings. In an attempt to stop the threat with less-lethal force, officers fired approximately four rounds from beanbag shotguns to gain compliance, but the suspect deflected several (possibly all) with the chair and the others had no effect. The suspect then dropped the chair and took a nearby female hostage, placing the knife to her throat.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that the Los Angeles incident represents a failure of the de-escalation policy that these officers were trained in and expected to comply with. (Photo/LAPD)
With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that the Los Angeles incident represents a failure of the de-escalation policy that these officers were trained in and expected to comply with. (Photo/LAPD)

Witnesses reported that the suspect held the (approximately) eight-inch bladed knife on both ends and began a “sawing motion” across the hostage's throat. Fearing for her safety, three officers fired their handguns at the suspect, who went down and later died at the hospital. Unfortunately, their gunfire also hit the hostage twice, killing her as well.

In media reports of this incident, the hostage was identified as a victim of police gunfire, but that only tells part of the story. In reality, both the hostage and the police were victims – victims of an aggressive political and cultural emphasis on deescalating police contacts with violent, noncompliant suspects.

Unanticipated consequences

The current “war on cops,” which was ushered in after the lawful self-defense killing of police attacker Michael Brown, had several effects on policing in America. In many regions, a "de-policing" or “Ferguson effect” took hold, with officers choosing not to make discretionary contacts with suspects, and only confronting them when they were dispatched to a call.

This voluntary reduction in police activity wasn't enough to satisfy the most strident police critics however, who have repeatedly called for police to “de-escalate” contacts with suspects. According to these vocal critics, the entirety of the police profession is guilty of racial bias, and routinely targets minorities for persecution. The critics have falsely accused the police of routinely using excessive force without cause, and have demanded changes in the law, police policies and police tactics to “correct” police behavior.

In many parts of America, politicians, justice officials, civic leaders and police management have ceded to the demands of the mob. Officers have been subjected to unwarranted administrative and criminal charges for lawful uses of force. Unreasonable and impractical restrictions have been added to newly revised use of force policies, and police pursuit policies have become so narrowly tailored that they actively discourage officers from engaging in pursuits at all. Police departments have adopted decorations and programs that actively reward officers for not using force, even when the tactical and legal circumstances make it the best option. Agencies have adopted and pushed “de-escalation” tactics that severely limit the ability of officers to use the most appropriate response for the tactical circumstances.

These and similar actions have had the effect of changing the police culture in many parts of America. As a result of these pressures, police have become less proactive, less decisive and more hesitant. They delay too long before using force, and often don't use enough force when they finally act.

The result is a decrease in officer and public safety.

Safety priorities

This decrease in officer and public safety is the result of a perversion of the Safety Priorities model that should guide police operations. In this model, the greatest priority is given to protecting the safety of the hostage or victim of a violent criminal. All police decisions and actions must give added weight to this priority above others, because the hostage or victim is the person who is least able to control the dangerous situation and remove themselves from the danger.

The next priority in the model is the protection of uninvolved, innocent citizens, followed by the protection of the police officers. The criminal’s safety is a priority too, but comes last in the hierarchy, since they have ultimate ability to end the danger to others.

The “de-escalation culture” that has gripped policing in the last few years stands this model on its head. Instead of asking police officers to weigh their decisions and actions with the public’s safety as the first priority, the de-escalation culture has had the practical effect of forcing officers to place the safety of the criminal before the safety of their victims or the police. 

As a result of this backwards thinking, we get incidents like the accidental hostage killing in Los Angeles.

Tactical rewind

With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that the Los Angeles incident represents a failure of the de-escalation policy that these officers were trained in and expected to comply with.

The officers were dispatched to a call where a man had stabbed his victim (lethal force), and when they arrived, he was still armed with the lethal weapon. The suspect immediately advanced on the officers with the weapon (and an improvised shield, which further alerts us to his inclination towards violence) and disregarded multiple orders to stop and disarm. A large number of innocents were within reach of the suspect and vulnerable to being attacked as the suspect continued his armed advance on the officers.

An application of the Safety Priorities model would demand early lethal intervention in this case (when the officers had a clear and safe shot at the suspect), not repeated warnings, protracted negotiations, or the use of less-lethal force.

Innocent life had already been threatened by the armed and violent suspect. Innocent life continued to be threatened by the suspect, as well as the lives of the police. The suspect was noncompliant and continued his aggressive advance in the face of lawful orders to stop. The lawful, ethical and reasonable solution here was to take advantage of the short window of opportunity presented, and use lethal force to stop the lethal threat while the risk to innocents was still low.

Betrayed

The officers didn't do that however, and we know why.

Their department has been the target of focused attacks by the political forces demanding police “reforms." They live and work in a culture where officer safety has sometimes taken a backseat to optics, where roadblocks have been placed in the way of appropriate tactics.

The officers in this incident were under tremendous pressure from the media, the public, city leaders and department leaders to avoid using lethal force, to delay and de-escalate the situation. The officers did what they were trained and expected to do, but the best practices outlined in department policies and pushed by the media, politicians, public, and police leadership failed them here.

The officers tried to use time, distance, communications and less-lethal force options to resolve this situation as they were trained, but the delay allowed the situation to deteriorate, and the risk to innocents to increase. A delay favored the suspect's safety, but not the safety of the suspect's first victim (whom the police could not reach until the suspect was secured), the safety of the innocent public, or the safety of the police officers.

As a result, the officers were eventually placed in the desperate situation of having to make a hostage rescue shot, and a tragedy ensued when the suspect forced them to attempt lifesaving action. The officers certainly didn't want to hurt anybody – suspect or hostage – but now have to live with what happened. In this sense, they were victims too.

Restoring balance

What’s missing from the public discussion on de-escalation is a sense of balance and trust.

Police professionals don't want to use any more force than required to do their jobs and protect the public. De-escalation has always been an important part of American policing, and the evidence points to the fact that the police already exercise significant restraint and control in their dealings with the public. American police officers only use force (of any kind—from a push or hold, to deadly force) in approximately 1.5 percent of contacts with the public, and deadly force is used in only the smallest fraction of those. American police rarely need to de-escalate a deadly force situation, because they are so exceptionally rare to begin with.

De-escalation is important, and we should certainly encourage it when appropriate, but we cannot allow an exaggerated emphasis on de-escalation to jeopardize public safety. We cannot allow the de-escalation narrative to put the safety of criminals before the safety of innocents and the police.

We should also recognize that the person who has the greatest ability to de-escalate a potentially deadly situation is the suspect, not the officer. It’s the suspect that controls whether or not a situation will require force, based on his actions.  We can ask an officer to de-escalate a situation, but the suspect gets the final vote, and an officer cannot de-escalate a situation unless the suspect makes it happen. Therefore, it’s not fair for the public to place the de-escalation burden solely on the officer, as is currently the case.

We need to restore a level of balance to the current conversation, and we need to put greater faith in the police’s ability to determine when force is required. Contrary to what the noise makers out there would have us think, our police generally make good use of force decisions. We should look for ways to help them perfect those decision-making skills, not handcuff them with overly restrictive policies that actually endanger the public more than protect them.

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