Once again, an unspeakable attack using a van to mow down people on a busy street—this time in Toronto—captures the headlines. At this writing, the act seems to be prompted by a fetishizing over rejection by women; and so, the targets on the Toronto street were mostly female. The motives may vary, but the methodology for destruction seems increasingly consistent: use common implements (trucks, vans, knives) to execute horrific acts upon innocents through wanton, random killing.
Without minimizing the horror in Toronto, something different happened this time in response. The driver of the van was subdued without additional violence. No shots fired. No riots ensued.
In an extraordinary article, with accompanying video compiled by the New York Times, we get a step-by-step analysis of how Constable Ken Lam disarmed the suspect. The key principle: de-escalation—an objective that US law enforcement seems too often to de-value in dealing with high-stress situations.
The process used by Constable Lam includes a few key elements. First, he turned off the siren blaring from his car. If you’ve ever been in a situation where a siren is blaring or lights are flashing, you know how this adds to the stress of the moment. By leaning into his car, Lam further indicated that he was not in a hurry to move towards resolution.
“It is about slowing things down, using time and distance to de-escalate the situation,” said Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Washington-based Police Executive Research Forum, which develops best policing practices. “The most important thing at a time like this is time and communications.”
Next, Lam steps out and away from the cover of his car and warns, “Get down or you’ll get shot.” Throughout the encounter, on multiple occasions, Lam repeats the same simple command. Repetition and simplicity can keep a perpetrator focused.
Lam then backs away from the suspect, who has walked toward him with a threatening object in hand. Likely assessing that this object was not a gun, Lam replaces his gun with a baton, visibly de-escalating the threat. He approaches the suspect, baton in hand, and by the time the officer reaches him, the suspect has dropped his object, raised his hands in surrender and laid down on his stomach with his hands behind his back. Lam doesn’t even use his baton; he merely handcuffs him.
In my final years at Intersections, one of our emphases was on police/community relations, using theater as a vehicle to inspire new approaches to law enforcement in the face of violent incidents in Ferguson, Cleveland and communities across the nation. A key principle in our efforts focused on de-escalation, using curiosity about “the other” to slow down the process that so often leads to additional violence in high-stress situations. Such additional violence is not inevitable.
It must be mentioned that this story has one important caveat: both the perpetrator and the constable are white, which has often not been the case in recent police/community incidents here in the US. Tragically, the complexities of race in our society (Canada’s, too) add an undeniable dynamic that can cloud judgment and render the best of intentions subordinate to reactions based on generations of behavior in a society plagued by systemic racism. The response, however, is not to accept that violence in multi-racial incidents is inevitable, but rather to double down on de-escalation training, include multi-racial scenarios and explicitly articulate ways that systemic racism plays into decision-making among us all. Only then can we use the goal of de-escalation as an effective antidote to the unrelenting violence in our land.