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Training day: How to be each other’s keeper

COs must be trained in how to verbally de-escalate and physically intervene when another officer loses emotional control


Correctional officers keep watch on inmates in the recreation yard at Pelican Bay State Prison near Crescent City, Calif.

AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

Do correctional officers have a responsibility to intervene when a fellow officer loses emotional control or uses excessive force? The answer is obvious: Officers have an ethical, moral and in many cases, policy-driven reason to do so. But why is it that many officers do not intervene or attempt to de-escalate? Here are some reasons:

  • Peer pressure
  • Fear
  • Prejudice/bias
  • Apathy
  • Not recognizing they are empowered to act
  • Lack of training/understanding
  • Agency culture

What if Derek Chauvin’s fellow officers had intervened to make sure that once George Floyd was restrained, he was immediately moved to his side or an upright position? Sadly, there are too many examples of officers not intervening when other officers lose their cool or use excessive force. Appropriate and timely intervention can save a fellow officer and their department from personal and professional embarrassment, loss of community trust, and civil and criminal prosecution.

In these situations, officers are either part of the problem or part of the solution. Officers must be authorized and trained on how to verbally de-escalate and physically intervene regardless of rank or seniority. Such intervention requires fortitude and both professional and personal courage. A “duty to intervene” training day can help develop these intervention skills.

Duty to intervene training scenarios

Each training scenario requires role players, an evaluator and a safety officer.

Before the training, your agency must develop a department-wide verbal intervention signal. At the sheriff’s office I retired from, the intervention signal was “your shoes are untied.” That would be the signal to move from the contact position to a position of cover or to move away from the core event. Whatever the signal, your department must develop one.

Scenario 1: Intake

An officer (trainee) is dispatched to assist with the intake of several prisoners (role players). When they arrive, there are already two other officers (role players) there. One of them can be heard loudly addressing an inmate. Their eyes are locked, and both are yelling and cursing. Both are tense with fisted hands and standing chest to chest. The other officer that is present freezes in place. The trainee and the officer role players are aware of the verbal intervention signal.

Expected outcomes

  • Immediate request for backup.
  • Backup officer’s loud announcement of their presence.
  • Use of the verbal intervention signal.
  • Soft physical contact to the officers’ elbow, shoulder or duty belt to provide safe separation.
  • Appropriate use of distance to separate the officer from the core event.
  • Request second officer to assist with the security of the inmate.
  • Request or notification of supervision.

Scenario 2: Transportation

There are two officers present, one a trainee and the other a role player. An inmate (role player) is being prepared for transportation with a waist chain, cuffs to the front and legs irons. Once properly restrained, the inmate refuses to walk as instructed and the officer (role player) tries to force the inmate forward. The inmate resists and the officer starts to loudly scream and curse. The inmate makes a verbal threat, and the officer places the inmate in a rear chokehold. Both the trainee and the role player are aware of the verbal intervention signal.

Expected outcomes

  • Immediate request for backup.
  • Backup officer’s loud announcement of their presence.
  • Use of the verbal intervention signal.
  • Physical contact or restraint to provide safe separation.
  • Appropriate use of distance to separate the officer away from the core event.
  • Provide aide to the inmate.
  • Request for medical assistance.
  • Request or notification of supervision.

Identifying storm warnings

While it is important to be aware of warning signs in other officers, it is equally important to be self-aware. Identifying ahead of time the signs that can indicate an officer is being triggered is critical.

These “storm warnings” can include:

  • Loss of emotional or physical control
  • Flushed face
  • A negative change in tone or demeanor
  • Uncontrollable yelling or screaming
  • Using profanity
  • Overly militaristic behavior
  • Impatience
  • Competitiveness
  • Argumentative
  • Spitting while talking
  • Moving in too close
  • Rigid body language
  • Making bogus, unrealistic threats
  • Stammering, stuttering or not making sense
  • Being physically abusive or aggressive
  • Zoned out
  • Being overly calm and cool, out of context for the situation.

How to intervene

Once storm-like behaviors are recognized, it is critical to act as quickly as is safely possible.

  • Call for backup. Depending on the situation, it could be exceedingly difficult to manage your fellow officer and the core event.
  • Move in slow, from an angle. If possible, identify yourself and softly touch the officer’s shoulder, telling them that you have got it. Ask them to take a step back. Verbally reassure them that everything is OK. If they are in a high emotional state, it is best to get them as far away as possible from the core event. Distance can be your friend. The further the officer is moved away from the core event, the quicker de-escalation can occur.

If touching the shoulder does not have the desired effect, here are two alternative approaches:

  • Move in slow, identify yourself. Softly contact the officer’s elbow to escort them away from the core event.
  • Move in slow, identify yourself. Grab the back of the officer’s duty belt and gently pull them back and away while maintaining physical contact.
  • Be prepared for physical resistance. If the officer is physically violent, restraint techniques may be required to get things under control. Be aware that they may respond in anger or be assaultive.
  • After the event. Once the officer has calmed down, encourage self-accountability and recommend the officer self-reports to their immediate supervisor. It is always best if the supervisor hears about the incident from the officer involved first.

Developing a culture of accountability

Most law enforcement officers agree with the premise of intervention. A 2017 Pew Research study found that while most officers say their use of force policies and procedures are appropriate and helpful, 84% said that fellow officers should be required to intervene when they believe another officer is about to use unnecessary force.

Training should take place to provide officers both the verbal and physical skills they will need to intervene. Doing so will encourage and develop a culture of peer accountability; enhance public perception and trust; prevent embarrassment; and reduce civil and criminal liability. If we genuinely care about each other, our profession and our communities, then we will truly strive to be each other’s keepers.

NEXT: Bystander effect: Abuse of authority and why we fail to react

Captain Rod Davis Sr., retired from the Stafford County (Virginia) Sheriff’s Office after serving over 40 years in law enforcement. He has over 30 years of experience as a law enforcement/corrections defensive tactics instructor in Virginia and previously served on two curriculum review committees for the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services, developing training requirements for use of force and control tactics for Virginia’s law enforcement and jail officers. He is a co-founder of Special Combat, Defensive Tactics USA, located in Mechanicsville, Virginia. For more information regarding police training and officer safety, contact Rod at 804/317-9070, or