What we can learn about de-escalation from a Black Lives Matter protest
By JIM McKEEVER
The summer of 2020 was one of violence.
More violence — and deaths — seem inevitable with the approach of the Nov. 3 elections, widely viewed as a referendum on the current administration and its policies.
Anxiety and tension have risen with more videotaped incidents involving police officers and Black men, threats of voting fraud, warnings of armed conflict and inflammatory statements and lies by those with a public forum.
But violence — and deaths — in the streets can be avoided.
A June 19 incident at a Black Lives Matter protest in Fayetteville, N.Y., provides insight into ways to avoid violence. That situation was not as volatile as many other protests, but it shed light on de-escalation methods that can be useful in any heated situation. (June 19 is Juneteenth, an important event in African-American history marking the day in 1865 when enslaved people of color in Texas learned of the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863):
Note: We encourage readers to share experiences that were successfully de-escalated by police or by others — or stories of conflicts that spun out of control — and the circumstances involved. This post, from senseofdecency.com, includes an edited transcript of an interview with two Town of Manlius police officers who helped de-escalate a potentially violent incident.
Black Lives Matters protesters in Fayetteville held daily actions for several weeks following the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis. Dozens of protesters — I was among them — stood in front of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Center along busy Route 5 for 90 minutes every afternoon, holding signs and waving to passersby.
Most people were supportive, but some objected to our presence and our messages, including a neighbor of the Gage Center who engaged protesters in a heated argument. He had briefly shown his opposition at earlier protests, but on June 19 he wouldn’t let up, coming close to protesters on the sidewalk and proclaiming “This is white country in front of my house!” and “You’re all being paid by George Soros!”
Someone called the police, and three officers arrived — an Onondaga County Sheriff’s deputy and two Town of Manlius police officers. They spoke to protesters and to the man on his front porch for about 20 minutes, and then left.
I was certain that as soon as the officers were out of sight, the man would be back at it. Instead, he didn’t budge from his porch. As far as I recall, he didn’t appear at any of the remaining days of protests.
What did those officers say that kept the man quiet?
I contacted Manlius police chief Michael Crowell, who agreed to an interview and arranged for me to talk with the two Manlius officers involved, Alicia Hibbard and Julia Quinlan.
Crowell, who was a Manlius officer for 17 years before serving as chief in North Syracuse and returning to lead Manlius’ department, was eager to talk about a communication style known as Verbal Judo. Crowell learned of the strategy more than a decade ago in a class taught by its founder, George Thompson, who was a police officer, college professor and martial arts practitioner. Thompson died in 2011.
Verbal Judo includes communication strategies for police to use in tense situations with people who may be agitated. For example, police may ask rather than order the person to do something. They may also give them options as opposed to threatening them.
“It hit me like a ton of bricks,” Crowell said. “I had 15 years a cop, and I realized a lot of what I was communicating was wrong. It was a revelation.”
Crowell brought the technique to Manlius, where all 38 officers go through annual training.
“Ninety-nine percent of what we do is communication,” Crowell said. “All forms of de-escalation (use) listening, paraphrasing” and avoiding confrontational language.
After officers master the technique of Verbal Judo, Crowell said, they can resolve difficult situations calmly and leave a positive impression on the people involved. “And it helps morale and the well-being of the officers,” Crowell said.
Here are excerpts from my Aug. 21 conversation with officers Alicia Hibbard and Julia Quinlan, who discussed the June 19 incident and how police — and protesters — can use de-escalation techniques when such confrontations occur. Their recorded comments were edited for length. Hibbard has been an officer three years, Quinlan more than two years. Manlius is the only department where they’ve worked.
Quinlan: A lot of what we do and are trained to do is just talk with people. Like a family member, try to understand where they’re coming from and not judge them … it’s hearing them out on what they say, and a lot of what we do is finding points on how to relate to them. Officer Hibbard did great (with the angry neighbor). She made a connection with his hometown and calmed him down from the get-go … it was a way to get him off the topic of what he was upset about and yelling about at the protesters, to get him into a different place where he was more calm and relaxed. When he was (calm), we said, “They’re doing nothing wrong by standing out there protesting in front of the Gage House and you have to respect that. You have your own opinions of what should or shouldn’t happen in life.”
Hibbard: He was (agitated). I recognized him from my hometown … He was upset, and as soon as I said, “Are you from there?” he came down. We were just talking about our hometown. As Officer Quinlan said, as soon as you get someone down from that angry state of emotion, that’s what you run with. When you’re up here (raises her hand to show an elevated emotional state), you’re not really thinking clearly at the moment, but as soon as you bring them down to a level of calmness, you can relate to them more. Once we established he was ready to hear us out, Officer Quinlan did a great job of saying, “Look, you both have your First Amendment rights but you have to be respectful of one another.” … That’s part of Verbal Judo, relating and getting that person from that highly emotional state to a place where they’re thinking more clearly, so that nothing escalates. It’s all about de-escalation. We didn’t want anything to happen to you guys and we didn’t want anything to happen to him either.
Quinlan: Venting is a lot of Verbal Judo, and it’s a lot more listening than talking. A lot of it is just talking to them in a monotone — you’re not screaming at them. Screaming at one another doesn’t help. If anything, it makes it worse, but you want to talk to them with a soft voice. I have a quiet voice, so people will (lower their voice) just to hear what I’m saying.
Hibbard: People will match your voice level. If you’re screaming, they’re going to scream as well and obviously that gets the blood flowing a little bit faster and the heart pumping.
Quinlan: It’s not 100 percent, but our first go-to move with any call regardless of what it is, is to use our words, to de-escalate the situation — just talking to them, not with just commands, communication first. Worst case scenario, resort to our duty belt, which is not where we want to go. Our belt is a tool for us, but it’s not something that we’re looking to use. It’s just an accessory to help us do our jobs better. Our words are what we use every single day, every single call and (they) help us get through the day and help us get home safe at night, just being able to talk with people.
Hibbard: Obviously, during this time (in America) people want to be heard. … We can sympathize with them and respect their First Amendment rights. We take no sides. We try to resolve situations. … I’m hoping the protests still continue to see the change that needs to happen, or that people think needs to happen. Reform is a good thing when it’s benefiting the protection of people.
Quinlan: The hard part responding to a call like that, there’s so many people, trying to figure out the issue, who is the instigator, different things we’re focused on, keeping everybody separated. That day specifically, Deputy (Helen) Sorrento was already speaking with the gentleman on the porch. We tried to tell the protesters to ignore him, not engage with him, and that really helps. When you give him the satisfaction of engaging with him, it’s just going to fuel him more to come after (protesters). That helped a lot, because with him not getting the attention —
Hibbard: — It’s not fun anymore —
Quinlan: We want to protect you guys … we already knew you guys had numerous complaints about people being rude and obnoxious and harassing you guys, whether it’s people driving by or whatever. We want you to feel safe enough to demonstrate your First Amendment rights. You resort to your training to keep everyone calm, so no one’s hurt and everyone goes home safe. It’s no different. … Deputy Sorrento had told the Black Lives Matter people to ignore him and not give him attention.
(Do you have any advice for protesters?)
Hibbard: It’s very hard to have that type of (self-)control especially when you’re that passionate about something. Besides listening and sympathizing, say … “I hear you, but this is what I’m doing and this is what I believe in. And it’s my First Amendment right.” Always keep it at that calm level, try not to yell. Try to sympathize, listen and use a calm voice.
Quinlan: Some of it is to try to find avenues that you can both benefit one another … show them you’re trying to not only voice your opinions and rights but you care about people in the community and what’s going on in their life. … It’s easy to react with emotion and anger. You’ve got to step back and think of what you’re going to say and be cognizant of how your words are going to impact somebody else and how they could impact whether this gets into a physical altercation or agree to disagree and head in our different directions.
Hibbard: There’s always common ground somehow. Talk and listen to get to that point, but not if you’re always talking and not listening.
Quinlan: Right now we’re also in a tricky time period, it’s tricky with COVID. “Domestics” have gone up, people are stuck at home, they get on each other’s last nerve and sometimes take it out on each other, let out some steam, push the real issue aside and nit-picking with what’s in front of you … it’s easy to point fingers at someone else. We see a lot of that, too. … A lot of people remember the little things we do, the kind gestures. Even people at their worst point, you do a kind gesture even taking them into custody — we’ve had people we’ve arrested thank us because of kind gestures we’ve done during that process.
Hibbard: That’s where that trust comes in. If you’re up front and say, “Hey, here’s what’s going on and we’re going to do this together. It’s not the end of the world. We’ll do it together and we’ll get through it.” That’s better and builds that trust and rapport. … not “because I say so.”
Quinlan: I don’t know any officers who go that route of, “You’re going to do this because I told you to.”
(How could that situation at the BLM protest have gone bad? What factors make things go wrong?)
Hibbard: We’re all trained the same. It’s kind of up to the person we’re talking to if we end up going a different route. … It’s up to people. If he (were) charging at you guys, we might’ve had to detain him to get him to calm down. We want to protect protesters and protect him. if it escalates, we’re trained enough that it’s not something we did, it’s something we had to get to the point where it’s because of the subject’s actions, not ours. … It’s difficult. Everybody’s different. … If you don’t know people on a personal level, you don’t know (if they might have) weapons when we walk into a situation. We have no idea about that stuff.
Quinlan: We all try to treat people with respect. Once they have a bad experience with an officer, they take that to the next officer regardless if it’s same officer or not. It’s important to show respect to everybody, no matter what kind of crisis they’re going through. … Show them respect and they’ll give respect back, is mostly what we see around here. Even if they don’t show us respect, we have to show them respect. That’s our job to remain calm and handle the situation.
Hibbard: There’s nothing saying you can’t make the wrong right. Say you made a mistake, just apologize. … We’re never perfect. This job’s about learning and adjusting. On a call, we realize what we said may trigger some people and may make others feel good. Everyone’s different, especially with mental illness. You find something that makes them get down to that level. If we say something that brings them back up, OK, that’s a red flag, don’t bring that up.
Quinlan: That’s a lot of the trick of our job. You don’t know people’s history. It’s about getting to know the person and getting to know a little bit about them to help us do our job better and keep them safe.
Since our interview in August, the list of incidents involving police failures to de-escalate situations has continued to grow — especially those involving white officers and Black men. The most well-known recent example is the videotaped shooting in Kenosha, Wis. of Jacob Blake, shot seven times in the back. Video has also emerged of Rochester police using a “spit hood” for two minutes over the head of Daniel Prude, a naked man having a mental health crisis on a street last March (Prude lost consciousness and died seven days later after being taken off life support). And, in Syracuse Sept. 14, a city police officer was videotaped challenging a man verbally and then shoving him in the face.
I asked Crowell subsequently how he and his officers react to watching those videos and what they can learn from those incidents. Here is his Sept. 16 e-mail response.
“We do use videos for training but today they have become prolific and we could not possibly address each and every one. In addition, the officers know that videos are often one dimensional; meaning, they alone cannot offer all of the factors one would need to consider before forming a proper opinion.
“Some videos however, offer enough information for officers to discuss and compare our various laws, guidelines and procedures which we are all sworn to follow here in NY. This allows for healthy debate and/or discussion among the ranks which often spills over into roll call and other training sessions.
“Video can be used to play the ‘what if’ game which is a daily training exercise for many of us. I’m certain the officers would agree that if any one video tends to cast a police officer in a negative light, we all feel hurt and or disappointed.
“Often we are judged by the perceived poor performance by any policeman in any uniform in any area of the country. Also, they know that perception is not always reality. This is why we use tactical communication always — we always assume we are being recorded and do not want to be the one who tarnished the badge.”
Note: After the Black Lives Matters protests in Fayetteville ended in July, a group of protesters — many of whom had not known each other previously — decided to continue the connections they had made by forming a book club. The first title the group discussed was “Nonviolent Communication,” by Marshall Rosenberg.