Now that most of the facts of the Michael Brown shooting have become relatively clear, the focus of the case has begun to shift to finding ways to reduce and defuse deadly confrontations between police and unarmed men, mostly young.
On “Meet the Press” yesterday, one of the guests, Sherrilyn Ifill, head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, talked about the need for more sophisticated training of law enforcement officers.
She said in part:
“You’re watching these encounters in which the police arrive on the scene, and they’re unable, it seems, to de-escalate…And so police officers need real training…And the only way we can deal with (those types of volatile situations) is to slow things down.”
That is an excellent, succinct assessment, and I hope that kind of thinking sets in and helps propel us toward an era of vastly improved police training. As it is now, it seems to me, law enforcement training puts a premium on being prepared to overcome resistance rather than calmly assessing difficult situations and trying to figure out how to “de-escalate” them.
I’m convinced Darren Wilson’s mindset was “winning” his confrontation with Michael Brown and Dorian Johnson.
After he spoke rudely, and very likely profanely, to them and they refused to comply with his demand that they get out of the street, I think he decided then and there that, by God, regardless of what ensued, they were going to do as he directed.
Predictably, the situation spun wildly out of control, culminating with Wilson chasing after Brown and Brown turning back toward Wilson, giving Wilson the rationale he needed to shoot and kill the “target,” as they say in police speak.
If Wilson had been thinking instead of acting on impulse, and if he had not barked at Brown and Johnson, violence probably would not have erupted.
But even with the encounter getting off on terribly bad footing, Wilson had several other opportunities to defuse the situation, including remaining in his vehicle — window rolled up, if necessary — and waiting for back-up to arrive.
He had radioed for help, and it arrived within seconds after the fatal shots were fired. Brown would have been apprehended in minutes.
On the subject of de-escalation, police and other law enforcement trainers would do well to follow the lead of experts in teacher training.
For at least the last 20 to 30 years, educators have devoted an incredible amount of time to developing classroom-management techniques designed to minimize disruptions and defuse confrontations.
As many of you know, I am a substitute teacher in the Shawnee Mission School District. I have had plenty of opportunities to see how veteran teachers and administrators keep the peace.
Two key elements to classroom control and keeping situations from boiling over are 1) staying calm and 2) reacting slowly and thoughtfully.
I particularly remember a situation that occurred in the Turner School District in 2006 or 2007. A male high school student was in an almost-empty hallway boiling over with frustration and anger. He was nearly disconnected from reality. An administrator — an assistant principal, I believe — stood on the other side of the hall, about 15 feet from the student. In a calm and steady voice, she told him to accompany her to the office where he could cool down.
I watched transfixed, waiting to see what the boy would do. About every 10 seconds, the administrator would say, “Come on, let’s go to the office. It’s going to be alright.” After about 60 seconds of spewing his frustrations and striking his fist on the concrete wall, he collected himself enough to start walking down the hall. Continuing to give him a wide berth, the administrator accompanied him.
On his Smart Classroom Management website, Michael Linsin, a teacher with about 25 years of experience, has a section called “how to handle an angry, verbally aggressive student.”
Here are a couple of points he makes:
Stay calm…Keeping your emotions in check is the first step to gaining control of any situation.
Take your time…You can’t go wrong taking your time in response to verbal aggression, tantrums, acting out in anger, and the like. Waiting and observing allows you to accurately assess the behavior, keeps you from losing your cool, and clearly establishes you as the leader in control of the classroom.
I suggest, in those two paragraphs, substituting Officer Wilson for the generic “you” that Linsin uses. If he had been trained to stay calm and take his time, Michael Brown would almost certainly be alive today. And if police cadets throughout the country were trained to do the same, we would have a lot fewer unarmed men, particularly black men, getting shot and killed in police encounters.
Let me leave you with this paragraph on “defensive behavior management” from the Intervention Central website.
“When students show non-compliant, defiant, and disruptive behaviors in the classroom, the situation can quickly spin out of control. In attempting to maintain authority, the teacher may instead fall into a power struggle with the student, often culminating in the student being removed from the classroom. The numerous negative consequences of chronic student misbehavior include class wide lost instructional time, the acting-out student’s frequent exclusion from instruction, and significant teacher stress. Defensive management can prevent these negative outcomes.”
Too often, the “negative outcome” from encounters between police officers and aggressive young men is death for the young men because police fall into the power-struggle trap.
Doesn’t have to be that way. Shouldn’t be that way. Maybe Ferguson will open some eyes.