Police Brutality and the Art of De-Escalation

de•es•ca•late [de-es-kuh-leyt] verb (with or without object), to decrease in intensity, magnitude, etc.

As a Social Work Officer at Fort Bragg, my primary mission was the Family Advocacy Program, the Army’s solution for addressing domestic violence. When recounting a domestic incident, I was struck by how Soldiers described what happened. They never said, “I was just pissed off one day so I hurled one at her.” Rather, each Soldier had a story, a sequence of events escalating into a violent altercation. To the outsider, this may sound like making excuses, but the reality is violence doesn’t come out of nowhere.

In my anger management group with Soldiers, I called this phenomenon the “domino effect.” When you push on the first domino in a row, they all fall down. But if you take just one domino away, you interrupt the sequence. Most bad outcomes are the culmination of a series of choices. As we study the events leading up to police brutality, there are any number of decisions – some large, some small – that, if altered, can prevent tragic deaths like those of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks.

At the outset, let me just say, it is the responsibility of local police to anticipate challenging outcomes. As a psychotherapist, I don’t expect every patient who comes to my office to be compliant and make good decisions. If I did, I’d have no business being a therapist. Law enforcement is no different. Having said that, police officers are human beings first. Emotional regulation, perception of events, physical reactions, and communication all play a role in the outcome of a call. This is to be expected. It’s how these four factors are managed that determines a good versus bad outcome. I discuss each of these briefly.

Emotion

In order to become a police officer, a candidate must pass psychological testing, but what happens after s/he joins the force? Exposure to one traumatic event is extremely stressful for most human beings. It doesn’t take much imagination to appreciate the long-term effects of perpetual exposure to trauma. Add to that the pressure of working in a highly stressful, unpredictable environment. If I bang a tuning fork on a table, it will vibrate. While the vibrating will eventually stop on its own, this takes time. If I keep hitting the fork, the vibrating never stops.

Without exception, every single Soldier from the 82nd Airborne I counseled had a history of either psychiatric treatment, misdemeanors, substance abuse, or physical or sexual abuse. Each of these histories can compound the effects of trauma. While the medical portion of Military Entrance Processing (MEPS) was supposed to screen for this, I used to joke this was the real “don’t ask, don’t tell policy” of the military: if a candidate didn’t write it on the medical form, the doctor didn’t ask about it.

Such factors should not preclude police service. In fact, it would be impossible to enlist the necessary personnel if we ruled out every candidate who had a troubled past. But current events can trigger unresolved feelings from the past. Add to this any personal drama going on in an officer’s life: marital; financial; children; medical; substance abuse; etc.

Imagine a pitcher filled with orange juice, soda and coffee. When you pour out the soda, what happens to the orange juice and coffee? Officers must learn how to “empty their pitchers” and not allow feelings from the past to accumulate and mingle with the present. In recognition of these myriad emotional challenges, officer counseling should be normalized and mandated.

Physiology

Any Mental Health Practitioner worth their salt is familiar with the “flight or fight response.” Our bodies are made up of the Central Nervous System (CNS), including the brain and spinal cord, and the Peripheral Nervous System (PNS) branching out to the extremities. The PNS is made up of the Sympathetic (SNS) and Parasympathetic Nervous Systems (PSNS). Anytime a person feels threatened, the SNS revs your body up to either confront a situation or escape it. The racing heart, rapid breathing, stomach upset, sweating, numbing, tingling, etc we associate with anxiety is really the SNS.

Of course, anyone who has ever felt anxious knows that the SNS sometimes overreacts. So, the more an officer understands the flight or fight response, the less likely s/he is to misinterpret its symptoms and the better s/he’ll be at managing them. If officers catch themselves early enough in a situation, they can employ behavioral techniques, such as deep breathing, muscle checking, and grounding, to reverse the effects of the SNS and activate the PSNS.

Other physical considerations include the impact of shift work on cortisol levels, sleep deprivation, poor diet and inadequate exercise.

Cognitive-Behavioral

The problems associated with dysfunctional thinking are rampant in our society. Distorted thinking leads to negative emotions (anger; anxiety; depression) which leads to destructive behavior. In addition to brutality, police suicides are at an all-time high, increasing from 172 in 2018 to 228 last year.

The gestalt of cognitive-behavioral strategies is as complex as it is abundant. Training would help officers identify their use of cognitive distortions as a coping mechanism, teach problem-solving strategies for work and personal life, and educate them on a variety of topics. Techniques commonly employed under this category are mindfulness, hypnosis, psychoeducation, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT or “tapping”) and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).

Communication

The most important but least understood factor in de-escalation is communication. In fact, constructive communication is sorely lacking in all facets of our society: families; schools; work and (God knows) the US Congress!

In fact, patterns of problematic communication are so prevalent, I created a list of fifteen “Constructive Communication Skills” I teach my patients.* I tell them that good communication is like learning a different language. If it were easy, they would have figured it out on their own.

In Conclusion

Along with the above changes to police de-escalation training, we also need to update our public school curriculum to include emotional intelligence like conflict resolution, anger and anxiety management, and problem-solving. We also need School-Based Social Services for easier access and increased interface between families and school personnel.

You can’t build a house with just a hammer. Anger management or sensitivity training isn’t enough to address police violence (or domestic violence for that matter). If we want to solve the problems associated with local policing, we must embrace mental health in all its modalities.

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Elaine S. Belson, LCSW-C

Elaine Belson has 30 years combined clinical, military, political and teaching experience. She obtained her bachelor's degree in Psychology in 1987 from the University of Maryland at College Park and her master's degree in Social Work in 1993 from the University of Maryland at Baltimore. Ms. Belson has worked in a variety of settings, including private practice, community agencies, and hospitals. She has also taught psychology at the college level and held several legislative positions. Ms. Belson served in the US Army as a Social Work Officer, including a deployment to Afghanistan, from 2008-2010. She was also the Executive Officer (XO) for the Medical Command in Afghanistan. Ms. Belson currently has her own private practice and serves on the School Safety Advisory Council for her county's Board of Education. View all posts by Elaine S. Belson, LCSW-C

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