It was a standing-room only session on the first morning at the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in Chicago for, “De-Escalation: Reducing Liability and Increasing Safety.”

With Black Lives Matter protests in response to the conference, and continued news stories of violent encounters between police and citizens, the conversation of de-escalating law enforcement encounters with the public couldn’t come at a better time.

Shannon Bohrer, retired range master/use of force administrator with Maryland Police and Correctional Training Commissions, Emmitsburg, Md., began by saying that the current law enforcement climate is prime for training, but many agencies are not sure where to begin. In most cases, particularly agencies that have been involved in violent interactions, it comes down to simple analysis.

“The essential elements of analysis come down to the officer, the offender and the circumstances,” Bohrer said. He then observed that the most important piece to analyze is the “perception” of all those involved in officer interactions. As Bohrer noted, like a game of telephone, two parties will look at a situation and have completely different takeaways. “The officer may have noted he was there to issue a ticket, but the offender may have thought [the officer] was there to arrest him,” he added.

It is because of this that officers, he suggested, should manage all incidents in a professional manner with courtesy, respect and remain in control of the confrontation. As simple as the suggestion may seem, Bohrer cited a widely misunderstood law enforcement study that coined, “nice guys finished last,” which as he quipped, has led many officers to believe that “acting like a badass” is the only way to get results. If the image of the tough “super cop” is one end of the spectrum, the panel noted that officer complacency stands at the other, which can be just as dangerous.

“Most officers have formed a functional blindness to their problems, if you went up to an officer and told them they would be five minutes away from an incident that would impact their safety and get the attention of national news media, they would say, ‘It’s not gonna happen here,'” Bohrer said.

Steve Edwards, senior policy advisor with the U.S. Department of Justice, added that in many cases, “officers feel that offenders should be held accountable for their resistant behavior,” but often times, this view of accountability is skewed when officers encounter people with mental illness, impairment and other unseen factors. His suggestion was simple: “Officers should be trained at an enhanced degree to defuse and de-escalate.”

It’s in these moments, Edwards added, that time and circumstances become key factors. In many violent police interactions, officers noted that the encounter was a chaotic, “rapidly evolving” scenario. In the moments leading up to these scenarios, Edwards suggested that officers counter the energy of a rapidly escalating situation — if voices are being raised, speak softly; if someone steps toward an officer, slowly step back.

“Simply recognizing the fact that when adversity is created between an officer and offender, every word and every movement that officer makes can add to, or take away from, that combative relationship,” he remarked.

His view was that all police actions be “viewed through the shroud of time and circumstance,” and that creating a calm scenario can defuse aggressive situations. Beyond that, Edwards noted that some agencies should consider training their officers in active listening skills, which are often used by law enforcement negotiators and typically deployed in suicide or hostage situations. Of those skills, letting the person know you are listening and want to guide them through this encounter is key. Edwards suggested that officers use a pneumonic device —LEED — to navigate escalated encounters, which stands for “listen and explain with equity and dignity.”

While thoughts of legal liability and safety of officers and the public weigh heavy in these discussions, David Flory, chief of police, Hot Springs (Ark.) Police Department wrapped up the panel with a practical view of improving police/public interactions.

“Use of force is inevitable,” he said. “But approaching the issue of force [through] liability isn’t the right place to start, [de-escalation is] the right thing to do.” His view was that law enforcement agencies should begin to model their culture and find candidates to join their ranks not only for their technical ability, but the fact that they “mirror” the values of the community.

Flory added that his agency enacted a rigorous system of 188 best practices standards. “It forced us to look internally… at all the things we do on an everyday basis.”

With such a high-level of standards in place, Flory believes that it will force everyone at all levels of law enforcement to be held accountable and create a strong culture.