When it comes to policing there is no such thing as black and white, and no two situations are the same. So how are cadets trained to de-escalate violent situations when there are so many shades of grey? Deidre Seiden spoke to Cpl. Allana Graham, Applied Police Science, Sgt. Jeff Comeau, Firearms Training Unit, Cpl. Mark Ward, Police Defensive Tactics and instructional designer Christine Hudy from Depot, the RCMP's training academy, to find out.
What are your goals when training cadets in the de-escalation of violence?
AG: Our goal is for the cadets to use the techniques and communication skills that we give them as much as they can so they can use the least amount of intervention necessary when interacting with a person.
JC: We want them to be thinkers and think on their feet when making decisions and take the appropriate action to deal with the situation appropriately. In the end, one of the goals is that they can resolve a situation so that everybody, the police and the public, is safe. That would be ideal but it's not always the case.
CH: That's one of the reasons why we try and make sure that the cadets leave here as very solid critical thinkers because the chances of them encountering a situation in the field that's exactly the same as something we've put them through in training is very slim. In our world, de-escalation is a fairly critical principle. So critical in fact that it's one of the seven tactical principles that cadets learn across the curriculum and it's mostly focused in the police defensive tactics (PDT) world.
What does de-escalation mean?
CH: The principle when we talk about de-escalation is to use whatever techniques are at a police officer's disposal to try and lessen or minimize the risk of harm to anyone involved in that situation.
MW: The goal is for everyone to be safe. We always have to look at the likelihood of harm in a given situation. Is there a chance that someone is going to be hurt? Is the police officer going to be hurt? Or will there be any type of damage to property? If there's no likelihood of harm, if there's no rush to move in to use force, then we're going to use that time to our benefit to de-escalate the situation by using our communication techniques with the parties involved to get some sort of peaceful resolution.
What's the best way to train cadets in de-escalation?
JC: I think probably our scenario-based training model and format that we use here. We do simulator training and scenario-based training with actors. Role playing gives the cadets the opportunity to have an actual person in front of them and have that back-and-forth communication.
CH: De-escalation is taught in the same way that a lot of our other core concepts are in that we always give cadets some basic introductory material to start with. Then we build on that knowledge throughout the rest of training. Plus we give them the opportunity to apply the techniques that are relevant to that concept in increasingly complex scenarios.
AG: It's fascinating how well the cadets learn the techniques. I think the reasons they learn it so well is because of how integrated all the different units are and how integrated the teachings are. We start that very early on with the readings and the classroom material. Then we go into the scenario training, starting with some of the more simple scenarios where it is a lot of the de-escalation and communication to resolve the scenario. Then they proceed to more difficult situations where actual intervention options are required.
MW: I agree with Jeff that the scenario-based training is probably the best way to get that experience under their belt. In PDT, we have certain scenarios set up where they have to tactically reposition, which is moving to a different position if it's going to make the situation safer or lessen the chance of violence.
Why isn't there one course taught on this topic?
CH: It's because we use an integrated, problem-based learning methodology in the design of the curriculum. With that particular educational approach, we don't divide the curriculum into subject-based material, which is your traditional way of teaching. We find that it's not a tremendously effective way to teach police officers. Using this methodology, the focus in the curriculum is on solving problems and that is more closely related to what real life is like. So everything they learn is within the context of the way they are actually going to be expected to apply when they are in the field.
JC: We also work together in the different units. Like in the firearms unit, when we're doing the judgement training in the simulators, PDT will join. I might be running a session and Mark comes and sits in on it. Then we both debrief and provide feedback to the cadets based on our background and experience with the different units.
What are some examples of the techniques that you teach?
AG: We teach them to use their listening skills as opposed to speaking all the time, active listening, not interrupting, letting the other person vent until they've gotten what they need to get out of their system.
JC: Body language can be very important as well. If one of our cadets jumped out of the police car with the baton, waving it around, that would set a very different tone than someone who took the time to consider the risk and act accordingly based on the situational factors.
AG: Something else that we speak to is managing our own stress when dealing with situations. It's about taking a moment, taking some deep breaths, thinking about what the situation is and that people aren't necessarily attacking you personally.
JC: We challenge them and teach them to ask themselves these questions when they get into situations. We want our cadets to hit the ground as Mounties as critical thinkers.
How are cadets trained to defuse a potentially tense situation, such as a traffic stop?
AG: We go through scenarios based on officer-violator contacts. A lot of defusing a potentially tense situation happens during the introduction. It's based on tone, where you're standing and body language when you're speaking to that person. You're in control of the situation and you're not letting the person you've stopped run the interaction. That's the first thing we do. And to keep it concise and professional.
JC: Exactly. Very early on the cadets are introduced to our core values and we want to see those modelled for the rest of their careers. Professionalism, compassion and respect are part of those core values and that's what we want to see from cadets when they are interacting, whether it's in a simulated scenario where they're talking to an image on a screen or an actor or role-player or the cadets' role playing for each other, we want that behaviour demonstrated.
MW: When cadets are introduced to those situations, we want them to be in control of themselves, to try and manage their own stress and their own anger. Allana hit on that earlier. Sometimes the goal of some people is to have an argument or an all-out fist fight with the police officer, so the police officer has to check themself and make sure they're in control of their own faculties.
Are cadets trained to respond to calls involving people with mental illness?
AG: There are some readings, videos, classroom exercises and specific scenarios on dealing with people with mental illness. It doesn't matter who or what is involved, we always do a risk assessment. We take into account the situational factors and our observations when dealing with anybody, it doesn't matter who it is. If we have more information on the subject, the better it helps us in our dealings with them.
CH: Regardless of who that person you're dealing with is and what circumstances have led them to that point, if you have to control a situation, the situation has to be controlled to make sure that public and police safety are maintained.
How can this knowledge help de-escalate a potentially violent situation?
MW: If you think about it, it's just another tool in the toolbox for the police officer. There are different approaches to handling situations. If I'm dealing with a person and it's not working, I have a plan B or plan C or plan D to fall back on. And I'll go through that cycle of whatever I have in my toolbox to help the situation. The more skill sets you have, the better prepared you're going to be.