Finding new answers to reduce police use of force

Finding new answers to reduce police use of force

April 11, 2019
By Matt Windsor
Criminal justice student Madi March examines de-escalation as a police tactic to reduce use of force at the 2019 UAB Spring Expo.

In 2014, President Barack Obama appointed a task force to suggest steps “to respond to a number of serious incidents between law enforcement and the communities they serve and protect.” The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing released its report a few months later. One of its key recommendations was that police departments should adopt de-escalation as an organizational philosophy. Four years later, how many have done so?

Less than half of America’s 100 largest cities even use the word “de-escalation” in their use-of-force policies and less than 8 percent define the term, according to original research by UAB senior Madison March, who is majoring in criminal justice and sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences. March said her faculty adviser, assistant professor Natalie Todak, Ph.D., in the Department of Criminal Justice, pointed her to a gap in the literature: there is no official definition of de-escalation.

What do you mean, "de-escalation"?

On one level, the concept of de-escalation is not difficult to grasp. "It means arresting officers reducing the use of force", March explained. But what does that mean in practice? Which of the many proposed de-escalation tactics are effective? Unfortunately, there is not “a working definition of de-escalation in the field," March said. "We need an official definition to work with" so researchers can help advise officers on which de-escalation tactics have evidence behind them, she explained.

As a step in that direction, "I found a database of police use-of-force policies in the 100 largest cities in the United States," March said. She coded each policy to note whether it mentioned de-escalation and if it provided a definition. "Only 39 used the term 'de-escalation' and only seven defined it," March said. That helps to illustrate that police “aren't using de-escalation, even though it can reduce use of force," she said. Prior research on the effects of police departments’ administrative policies suggests that there are fewer instances of use of force in departments with clear policies, March said.

Research 2.0

March’s project, “De-escalation on Paper, Police in Practice: a Qualitative Analysis of Police Use of Force Policies,” is one of hundreds of research projects by UAB undergraduates that will be presented at the 2019 UAB Spring Expo.

The event, which celebrates its 12th anniversary this year, showcases research, scholarship and other academic endeavors by UAB undergraduates on April 18 and 19.

Overuse of force is a hot-button topic today, but it has been a common issue for decades, March said. "There is so much research out there on what's going wrong, but we haven't been seeing solutions." She hopes her work, which includes a suggested standard definition of de-escalation, can lead to some progress. "This is just a crack in the door to open larger investigations," March said.

International investigations

After graduation this spring, March is off to the Netherlands, where she will study International Crimes, Conflict and Criminology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam on a Fulbright Scholarship.

When March, a Hoover native, first arrived at UAB, she was interested in a career in federal investigations. But after four years, she has found she is attracted to the thrills of scholarly research instead. "Investigations and research are similar in that you are gathering and processing and creating a product," March said. "I get to combine criminal justice and sociology to get a look at the theory as to why people do the things they do."

March wants to translate scholarly findings into applications in the field. "The people practicing criminal justice often have such different backgrounds from academics," she said. "We have to figure out a way to communicate the research to the people in practice so they can implement it."