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ASU professor studies how police officers manage heightened situations

August 4, 2020

William Terrill, a professor of criminology at ASU, has studied police behavior and culture for more than 20 years

The ongoing protests over racism in the United States have fueled conversations about the role of policing, including demands for officers to focus on “de-escalating” situations before they become violent.

William Terrill, a professor of criminology at Arizona State University, has studied police behavior and culture for more than 20 years, starting in the 1990s.

“It was observational then, ride-alongs with officers to see how they managed the encounter and what skill sets they used to keep things under control,” said Terrill, who also is the associate dean of interdisciplinary programs and initiatives of the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.

He’s currently in a new research project as part of a partnership with the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center. Thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security through the ASU-led Center for Accelerating Operational Efficiency (CAOE), Terrill’s research team will be examining footage from police officers’ body-worn cameras to identify how officers create positive outcomes, such as using less force and getting more cooperation.

The goal is to pinpoint patterns of behavior that can be incorporated into officer training.

Terrill answered some questions from ASU Now about police de-escalation.

Question: What is de-escalation?

Answer: De-escalation is, in simple terms, when an officer faces a suspect in a heightened state of emotion or aggression and they attempt to essentially use the least amount of force possible to calm the situation down. Often, words, or “verbal judo,” has the ability to calm the person down and get them to comply.

William Terrill is a professor of criminology and the associate dean of interdisciplinary programs and initiatives of the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.

Starting with the 2016 President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, de-escalation has become part of the vernacular within police circles and public circles.

But it’s important to put de-escalation in the same context as escalation.

De-escalation assumes that police are going into an escalated situation already, and that does occur. But just as often, police go into a situation that’s relatively calm and it escalates from there. So it’s not just de-escalation, it’s also not letting the situation escalate.

There’s research that shows that officers can contribute to escalating a situation where it’s calm and the suspect is compliant. Maybe the officer asks for a driver’s license and the suspect asks, “What did I do?” and the officer replies, “Show me your driver’s license or I’ll mace you.” And it becomes contentious right out of the gate. The officer can contribute to the escalation as much as the citizen.

Q: Are police officers trained to de-escalate?

A: It’s always been in the training academies to some degree. In the last three or four years, it’s taken on heightened importance because the president’s task force talked about how important it was so it was worked into the training curriculum more explicitly.

Q: What did you find out about officers’ behavior during the ride-alongs?

A: Back then one of the key findings was that officers were already pretty good at de-escalating but weren’t that skilled at not escalating. So, when they came across a suspect who was resisting or noncompliant, they were pretty good at getting them to comply without using what would be considered excessive force.

Where they struggled was on the other end.

We found that in 3 out of 4 cases that escalated, the suspect was compliant and it was the officer’s behavior of adding extra verbal force or coercion.

Think of a noise complaint where they go to the house and say, “Please turn down the music.”

And what would escalate it is when the officer says, “Turn down the music or I’ll come back and do X.”

They’re throwing in that extra element of coercion that puts people on the defensive. And, especially if there’s an audience, it’s like, “I have to defend my honor.”

Q: What will you be looking at on the body-worn camera videos?

A: The thing with video is that you can slow it down and repeat it and sequence out the series of behaviors, such as, “When the suspect did X, the police did Y.”

What are the thresholds that indicate that the suspect may escalate or what did police do to escalate? There could be certain phrases used. It could be body posture.

What happens when they’re patting down someone who is showing signs of intoxication or mental illness? If there are three or four people on the scene, are emotions running high?

If someone is intoxicated and there are more than two officers on the scene, does the suspect get upset and that causes them to escalate?

We’ll be coding the videos and looking for those predictable patterns.

It’s not going to be foolproof because it’s human behavior. We’ll be looking at probability.

We’re going to look at close to 500 videos that range from two or three minutes to two to three hours. It’s a nice range from quick, easy traffic stops where they give a warning to elongated police chases.

Also, the context of what prompted the interaction is part of it. It’s everything from a suspicious person to a bank robber. Or, “We’re being dispatched by 911 to the scene” to, “We proactively decided to stop someone on our own because something is wrong.”

Q: What can lead to officers escalating a situation?

A: There’s the “disrespect factor,” which is an interesting concept that dates back 50 years.

Police officers don’t like it when they’re feeling disrespected or feel that the public doesn’t honor the badge.

When they tell you to do something, it’s, “We’re not in a negotiation here. Show me your hands or I’m going to escalate.”

Is the noncompliance of not showing hands a form of disrespect or is it posing a physical danger that requires escalation?

More times than not, it’s not a public safety threat, but the officer interprets it as such because it’s disrespectful and disrespect can prompt escalation.

“Disrespect” is a long-held fairly consistent predictor of increased force within police literature, although some of my studies don’t find it.

How do you measure noncompliance and disrespect? There is some overlap.

I can call the police officer a "pig" but if I’m putting my hands behind my back because he told me to, I’m compliant but disrespectful.

A challenge within law enforcement is “show me your hands” or “stop walking” and the suspect doesn’t do it immediately and the officer takes potential noncompliance as a threat, but it may not be a threat and it doesn’t require being thrown to the ground.

You can see countless videos on the internet of what look like minor situations where the officer escalated it.

Q: Does the probability of escalation vary according to the characteristics of the officers?

A: Not on escalation and de-escalation per se.

All those factors are studied usually in terms of, “Do they use force more or are they more likely to use a higher level of force?”

Research generally shows that more experienced officers will generally use less force than less experienced officers.

The challenge with that is how assignments are carried out. Most police organizations take the least experienced officers and put them in the most challenging environments. Officers coming right out of the academy don’t have the seniority to bid on their assignments and they end up on the night shift in high-crime districts. Those areas are more challenging because they’re more likely to get noncompliance. Like most occupations, the more senior you are, the better assignments you get.

Q: Are you glad that there’s a renewed public focus on de-escalation?

A: It is somewhat frustrating that de-escalation has taken on such a national focus and I’m saying, “Wait. The research for 20 years says the issue is not de-escalation. The issue is escalation.”

The training should be, “How do we not escalate an already calm situation?”

I do think the public has a good grip on what de-escalation means. They want the officer, when they show up, to not be overly coercive.

A lot of the perception is when you have a noncompliant suspect. A part of the skill set should be how to get them to comply without using excessive force.

What I think is not understood is the extent to which the police can escalate the situation on their own.

I do think police departments have come a long way with this.

When I was in the military police in the 1980s, part of the training when pulling someone over during a traffic stop was to not tell them why they’re being pulled over until after I get the driver’s license and registration. I was not trained to tell them why even though that will help de-escalate a situation and legitimize the stop. So it was opening the door for escalation right out of the gate.

If you go back to the noise complaint, the officer doesn’t have to threaten. Don’t frame it as, “I’m going to come back and drag you out of the apartment or mace you or tase you.” There’s no need to do that.

Q: In the overall context of reforming policing, how important is de-escalation?

A: I worry a little bit about the conversation getting narrowed down to it’s all about escalation and de-escalation. It’s dominating the public discourse right now.

It should be a key component but what it misses is how many routine encounters occur. We have nearly 800,000 police officers working across the U.S. in 16,000 separate police agencies and they handle millions and millions of encounters and the large majority of those are routine.

When you’re dealing with so many routine encounters and all of a sudden there’s a de-escalation situation, it can be hard to flip that switch.

In the ebb and flow of policing, we ask them to do so much. We ask them to be officer friendly and give directions and when there’s a shooting we ask them to handle that. The spectrum of duties is so wide. You have to be focused on a somewhat rare but crucial effect. But that’s what the job entails.

Top photo courtesy of Pixabay.

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU Now


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ASU class transforms keyboard warriors into community activists

August 4, 2020

Writers’ Studio students are discovering that activism has become an outgrowth of their writing courses

An ASU Online first-year writing program is transforming English composition students from around the country into activists and helping them drive change in their respective communities.

Some of the results?

A controversial school mascot’s name has been changed after 80 years. Stories of racism have been highlighted in a new zine, and a famed World War II fighting squadron is getting more attention at a national museum.

This accidental activism has become an outgrowth of Writers’ Studio, which is directed by Michelle Stuckey along with Ebru Erdem and Zach Waggoner.

“I am absolutely thrilled when I see students making a difference in their communities,” said Duane Roen, dean of the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts. Roen, along with colleagues Sherry Rankins-Robertson, Tiffany Bourelle and Andrew Bourelle, helped design the course in 2011In 2012, the program received President Crow’s Faculty Achievement Award for Excellence in Curricular Innovation.. “Feeling agency through writing or speaking up should occur early in life, and this spurs students to want to become engaged in social activism. These courses give them a platform for acting on their passions.”

ASU’s Writers’ Studio is a modality for completing first-year composition online, in which students can choose courses offered in 7 ½ or 15-week intervals.

“But with lots of peer interaction and writing-mentor feedback built into the structure, it’s also a writing community that helps students develop writing practices to be better communicators in all areas of their life: the personal, the professional, the civic and, of course, the academic,” explains Writing Program Administrator Michelle Stuckey, who has led the Writers’ Studio team for the last five years. “Instructors work with students to draw on their experiences and passions in all these arenas to cultivate their own theory and practice as writers.”

When the program launched almost a decade ago, several hundred students enrolled. Now, about 6,000 students participate in Writers’ Studio each year.

“Along the way, students begin to see how they can use writing in the real world to support real work in their communities,” Roen said.

Here’s how three Writers’ Studio students have recently been putting their practice into action:

What's in a name?

Woman in black shirt with blue eyesCandace Turer

At 33 years old, ASU student Candace Turer is just now discovering the power of the pen.

The Anderson, Ohio, native recently helped convince that township’s school board to change the name of a local high school mascot. It’s the same exact one as the National Football League’s Washington football team.

Turer felt the name was not only racially insensitive but downright racist. She said it has evoked controversy in her township, which is located about 15 minutes from downtown Cincinnati. It was last debated in 2018 but nothing was done.

“Many excuses were given why the name couldn’t be changed: It was tradition or it would cost too much money to rebrand or change the mascot’s name,” Turer said. “I wanted to educate myself and the community on this issue.”

Turer took ENG 105: Advanced First-Year Composition as a Writers’ Studio class in spring 2019. Her paper “Revisiting the Redsk*ns” defined the word, researched its origin, and sought out Native American organizations to ask how they felt about the word. It was unanimous: They said the term was discriminatory and oppressive. 

After completing the paper, Turer created a website and posted it online. It jolted the community of 45,000 people, who were narrowly split on the issue. Turer said her paper came at an incredible cost. She received plenty of “backlash and harassment” and moved from her hometown to a place about 45 minutes away.

“Many of us who spoke out early on to change the mascot were doxxed and threatened,” Turer said. “It was a mess and turned into a right vs. left political issue.”

It became a nonissue earlier this month. The Forest Hills Schools District not only read Turer’s paper (which she sent to each school board member the day before the meeting), but hundreds of letters from concerned Native Americans and locals in the community. On July 2, the board passed a motion to retire the mascot. The action received mentions in Sports Illustrated and The New York Times.

“I’m proud of our community because we’re now on the right side of history,” Turer said.

Turer’s story is indicative of the transformational power of gaining confidence as a writer, said Christina Giarrusso, a Writers’ Studio faculty associate.

“Many of our students don’t anticipate becoming activists because this is, after all, an English class,” Giarrusso said. “It’s really dependent on the students, where they choose to go after the course ends. The intention they put in is what the spotlight is all about.”

Woman with curly hair and earrinigsTaylor Babineaux

New light through old windows

The lack of spotlight on a revered group of African American military fighter pilots is what sparked Taylor Babineaux into action.

It all started when the Lafayette, Louisiana, resident visited nearby New Orleans and toured the National World War II Museum in September 2019. She said as she strolled through the expansive collection of artifacts, she noticed there was something off when she came to a P-51 plane.

“The plane lacked a card or plaque discussing its relevance to the Tuskeegee Airmen. I was also disappointed they did not have a clearly defined exhibit for the Tuskegee Airmen. I felt they weren't as prominent as they should be,” said Babineaux, who is Black. “I noticed the overwhelming amount of visitors were Caucasian and not a lot of minorities. I wanted to see something more inclusive that mirrors society.”

Taking a cue from the Writers’ Studio playbook, Babineaux identified the problem and went to work. She started an online petition to raise awareness and then wrote the museum a letter about her visit. Babineaux found them receptive to her ideas. That was affirmed by Stephanie Verdin, senior director of planning and communications at the museum.

“Taylor Babineaux met with me and the museum’s vice president of education and access Pete Crean on July 11 to discuss how the museum currently tells the Tuskegee Airmen story and her ideas on what we can do to draw more attention to this important history,” Verdin said. She added that in addition to the restored P-51D Mustang painted in the likeness of a “Red Tail” fighter flown during the war, the museum has oral histories, curriculum guides and public programs featuring the Tuskegee Airmen.

Verdin said most recently the museum has not only published several online profiles of the Tuskegee Airmen but on women, LGBTQ individuals, and other minorities.

“Our staff is also exploring different ways that we can enhance how we tell the Tuskegee Airmen history and draw more attention to diverse stories on the site at the museum,” Verdin said. “We look forward to keeping Taylor posted on our progress.”

The museum, incidentally, has a partnership with ASU Online to offer the nation’s first online master’s degree in World War II studies.

Babineaux’s ENG 105 instructor, Sean Tingle, commended the work behind her activism.

“It’s exciting to see her do this and get traction,” Tingle said. “She’s inspired and is learning not only about herself in the process but real community issues. It’s wonderful to see.”

Made in Boise

Woman in classes with pink and white hair

Kennedy Hines

The Black Lives Matter movement has forever changed the way we look at and deal with racism. It has also greatly inspired Kennedy Hines, who attends ASU through the Starbucks College Achievement Plan.

The 21-year-old sustainability major lives in Boise, Idaho, where BLM hasn’t gained much traction or attention.

“Boise’s a bubble and the common belief here is that things like police brutality and racism ‘doesn’t happen here’ or that the police force is somehow different,” said Hines, who credits her Writers’ Studio experience for giving her the confidence to start an important project to document police brutality against people of color in Idaho.

She, along with another friend, Arlie Bledsoe, met with people from all races over a period of a few months to document their experiences with the Boise Police Department. The final result was “It Does Happen Here,” curated stories from victims of police brutality. The 24-page zine amplifies the community stories and has been distributed to the BLM Boise chapter and other activist groups in the Boise area.

“We’ve gone to protests and have handed them out because we noticed there’s a lack of evidence in our community,” Hines said. “We put it out ourselves to let people know this is not OK.”

Hines said the Writers’ Studio has taught her not only how to look for problems in her community but how to be a part of finding resolutions.

“The class not only showed me how to implement those tools but solve problems, look for solutions and pass on the knowledge.” 

Stuckey said true knowledge is gained by experience.

“Students realize that once they take action, this is no longer an assignment for a class any longer,” said Stuckey, a clinical assistant professor in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts. “They can see how they can have an impact on their communities through writing and research.”

Top photo: Writing Program Administrator Michelle Stuckey has led the Writers’ Studio team for the last five years. About 6,000 students participate in Writers’ Studio each year, many of whom are becoming accidental activists. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now.

Reporter , ASU Now