“De-fusing trouble rather than igniting”

As an umpire, I arrived early enough at a high school softball field this afternoon that I had the time to converse with a fan.  He turned out to be a retired police officer with 35 years’ experience.

Naturally, we got onto the topic of the day — the use of force by police officers.

This retired officer was not at all sympathetic with the police who have been caught up in the controversies.  He remarked, officers of today are many of them big bruisers, and they resort to force too quickly.

He said, in his day — and in his own style of police work — the skill of an officer showed in the way a situation was de-fused rather than ignited.  The news stories about the choke-hold death of a man who was selling cigarettes, the shooting death of another who had been pulled over just for a faulty tail light — he said, those were examples of officers who went into a situation and made it worse than it had to be.

It occurred to me that as an umpire I had been hearing the same thing in my own training sessions.  We are told how to de-escalate a situation, rather than to escalate a problem into an uproar.

The tone of voice, the loudness of voice, the way to approach somebody in a non-threatening manner, the use of reason, understanding not only the rules but the reason for the rules of the game, explaining your decision rather than resorting to a power play against a coach or player — all are factors in de-escalating.

One time when I was living in New Jersey, I had the occasion to appear before a local magistrate because of a parking ticket — twice.  Both times, I was not on the docket right away, so I had time to observe this judge in action.  I was surprised at his style.  He would go out of his way to compliment the defendants, thanking them for their appearance, and he would explain calmly any decisions he had to make.

Some days later, I had a chance to meet this magistrate at a mock trial being held by a middle school.  I caught up with him before the event, and I told him what I had observed of his calm, polite style of dispensing justice.  He remarked, “I got that from my father.”

He explained, “My father was an attorney.  And he used to say, ‘The more authority you exercise, the less you retain.’ ”

I know that a police officer can never take any situation casually.  We all saw the video of the officer in Flagstaff, Arizona who was calmly talking with a suspect over a domestic-violence incident when the suspect suddenly pulled a pistol out of his jacket and killed the officer.

I remember talking with an officer years ago in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania who said, “Every day I go to work, I kiss my wife, because I never know if it’s the last time I’ll see her.”

Nobody would downplay the peril an officer faces at any moment during the course of one’s shift.   I just wonder about ways to de-escalate rather than escalate a situation.

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