Interesting choice of words: “De-escalate”

Editorial Board, The Oregonian, December 3, 2009

That’s how Commissioner Dan Saltzman described it this week when he retreated — and thereby ended — his confrontation with the Portland Police Association.

Intentionally or not, maybe Saltzman was telegraphing a message to the Portland Police Bureau: Look, it’s not so bad to change your mind. Every now and then it’s OK to back down.

Saltzman agreed to let Officer Christopher Humphreys have a desk assignment while he is under investigation for shooting a 12-year-old girl with a beanbag shotgun. (Earlier, the commissioner had insisted the officer be placed on paid administrative leave. But on Tuesday, Saltzman acknowledged that he hadn’t understood that the difference between the two assignments, for an officer under investigation, is profound.)

Interestingly enough, “de-escalation” where possible, is exactly what the Portland Police Bureau recommends sometimes when officers are in tense situations. “The bureau places a high value on the use of de-escalation tools that minimize the need to use force.” So says the department policy adopted in March 2008.

That policy broke ground nationally, according to the Los Angeles-based Police Assessment Resource Center. Why? Because it explictly recognized that “police officers must strive to use lesser levels of force even if higher levels of force might otherwise be permissible in the circumstances,” PARC said.

Backing down from a confrontation can be incredibly embarrassing. It can cost an officer a loss of face that Saltzman can certainly identify with this week. It can also seem to officers that, by backing down, they’re not really doing their jobs. A tactical retreat can violate every instinct that they have as police officers, and also diminish the pride they take in their work.

To back down violates the rules of hardball negotiations, as well, as practiced by Commissioner (and former fire union negotiator) Randy Leonard. And yet backing down, when and where it’s plausible, can also defuse a situation, prevent unnecessary harm and be excellent advice.

So think about this. Saltzman went against the conventional wisdom this week. He admitted to having not understood something well, and he reversed himself. But isn’t this what we’d also like to see more Portland police officers do?

Not every foot pursuit is essential; sometimes, as horrifically illustrated in the case of James P. Chasse Jr., it would be better for officers to let someone get away.

Put in the context of what we’d like to see more of from the Portland Police Bureau, maybe Saltzman, this week, actually modeled good behavior.