On a sunny, late summer evening in August 2017, a man walked in to a sporting goods store in downtown Seattle. He walked out with a stolen 2-3 foot-long ice axe used by mountain climbers to pierce thick ice walls with a single swing. Before leaving the store, the man threatened employees with the axe. He left the store and walked down a busy Seattle street towards a popular downtown area, all the while swinging the axe around.
For blocks, Seattle police officers followed the man on foot, from a safe distance, and repeatedly told the man to drop the axe. The man acknowledged the officers, at times turning and looking at the officers. But the man refused the officers’ one, repeated request—to drop the axe.
After blocks of using time, distance, talk, and warnings in an attempt to de-escalate the situation consistent with Seattle Police Department policy, Seattle Officer Nick Guzley exercised his discretion to contain the dangerous situation. But he did not draw his firearm and use lethal force. He did not use a Taser, or a baton, or pepper spray. He did not punch, kick, or throw the axe-wielding man to the ground. Instead, Officer Guzley ran up behind the man, bear-hugged him, and stopped the man from doing anyone any harm. And for that heroic act, with the most minimal amount of force one could imagine (if you can call a hug a use of force), Officer Nick Guzley faces discipline from his employer. Why? Apparently, he didn’t properly de-escalate the situation.
De-escalation has become something of a buzzword in law enforcement. At its core, de-escalation is a rather simple concept that has been around for a very long time in policing—officers try to slow down a situation so that more time, options, and resources can become available to resolve the situation. To be successful, de-escalation requires a key component: a community member willing to listen and interact with officers. Without that communication, without that voluntary compliance, officers are left with the discretion to take action to stop the threat.
Our communities expect a lot from our officers. And we take their expectations seriously. Our communities want our officers to be thoughtful, to take time to try and talk a suspect into voluntary compliance and, if all else fails, to use reasonable force to subdue a threat to innocent bystanders. We want to do right by the community; it is, after all, our community. But when we ask our officers to meet our expectations and they do just that, we must be supportive, not critical.
What Officer Guzley and the other Seattle officers did that day is exactly what we want from our officers when discharging their core duty of keeping the public safe. Officer Guzley faced a noncompliant man swinging an axe he had just stolen, and Officer Guzley resolved that potentially deadly situation with a hug. He did what we asked of him. And for that, he should be met with our support, not our criticism.