OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — In an internal Omaha Police report in March 2020, a member of the research and planning unit recommended a de-escalation policy be added to the department's many policies.
The author's inspiration for the recommendation came from a 2019 Department of Justice report on best practices for law enforcement.
"I believe creating such a policy would emphasize the importance the agency places on de-escalation techniques and actions," the author wrote.
More than two years later, though, there's no stand-alone de-escalation policy, Omaha Police Training Commander Lt. Ken Fox confirmed.
But Fox says de-escalation is something the department has been proactive about since he's been on the force since 2006. It used to go by a different name: verbal judo.
The recommendation comes on the last page of the 2019 Annual Use of Force Report, which digs into trends involving when and how officers use force on people.
"It would be an addition," Fox said of a potential stand-alone policy on de-escalation. "But...right now it's not detrimental to the culture that we've created for this department."
What is de-escalation?
Fox describes de-escalation as "the method used to limit the amount of severity of force used during a police contact with (a) subject."
That's verbally or physically, he said.
"The Omaha Police Department is always looking for best practices and always trying to get in front of...what will be beneficial for our citizens and our officers," Fox said, "To make sure that we limit those conflicts out in the community."
Life is often on the line in tense interactions with law enforcement, for both the officer and their subject. Successful de-escalations eliminate the need to use force — which could cause injury or death — or limit the severity of the force used.
Fox said de-escalation training starts with classroom discussion on mental and verbal topics, before going into the physical parts of it, which might include scenarios.
Around 2019, he said, in-service training included a de-escalation scenario in which officers encountered someone in a mental health crisis with a weapon.
Integrated into policies
Fox says, though there's no standalone policy, de-escalation is integrated across the department's use of force policies. He said it's an effort that took place before the 2020 protests.
"We have integrated de-escalation into every use of force policy," he said. "And so that's why we don't have a stand-alone policy right now."
The general use of force policy says "officers are expected to utilize de-escalation techniques to provide themselves with more flexibility during potential use of force situations."
It continues: "However, the OPD recognizes officers are often forced to make split-second decisions about the amount of force, if any, that is necessary in a particular situation, in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving. This requires a careful balancing of competing interests, but apprehension of criminal offenders must, at all times, be subordinate to the protection of innocent human life."
That policy also defines de-escalation as "the strategic slowing down of an incident in a manner that allows officers more time, distance, space and tactical flexibility during dynamic situations."
De-escalation is also mentioned in the policy on special techniques and less-lethal weapons mentions, mostly about using a "Warning Arc" on a Taser 7.
The policy on reporting use of force incidents requires that each documentation of a use of force incident lists "any attempts to mitigate the need to use force, including commands or other de-escalation tactics."
Those policies, each beginning with "Response to Resistance," are posted online here.
De-escalation in training
Omaha Police invited 3 News Now Investigators to a de-escalation training in September 2020. The training was for school resource officers. There, the training featured a lesson on Gen Z slang and other things about the generation those officers need to be familiar with.
In January 2019, a recommendation in the prior year's Use of Force Analysis Report said OPD officers should receive de-escalation training every year. Fox said that's happening.
In 2021, the Nebraska Legislature passed a bill requiring de-escalation to occur annually for officers. Fox said OPD did that before the mandate.
Fox said the training includes crisis communication and commands in Spanish.
Following the call for a de-escalation policy are three related recommendations: have senior personnel promote the de-escalation policy, implement the policy into training and reward successful de-escalation efforts. He said once a month a committee meets and selects merit-worthy de-escalation actions, which are recognized at an annual banquet.
We asked Fox to share a successful de-escalation story. Recently at a domestic violence call, someone was inside a home with a knife. He said several young officers talked to the person at the door for about 10 minutes. After "gaining some trust" the individual lowered the knife, allowing an officer to use a Taser.
"That's what de-escalation can do," Fox said. "It can slow down the moment to get people to actually think about what's next, and think about some positive ways to reach that person, and to decrease the severity of potential force of the use."
This story dives further into OPD's Use of Force Analysis Reports.Below is the the report on 2019.