De-escalation Training for Sherriff’s Department Seeks to Change Culture

By Cristy Lytal

On a recent Saturday, 25 Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputies gathered at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church to learn new skills and strategies for de-escalating crises and resolving conflicts.

The full-day training program was offered by the Safe Communities Institute (SCI) and sponsored by David Hochman through the newly formed Los Angeles Sheriff’s Foundation.

“This innovative new course will help to ensure that the deputies of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department have the tools and resources they need to work effectively and collaboratively with the communities they serve,” said David Hochman, who is President of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Foundation and a member of the Board of Councilors at USC Price.

SCI will offer this immersive training program on a regular basis to additional cohorts of deputies. The sessions will be held at local houses of worship, including churches, synagogues and mosques. The goal is to reach more and more deputies, and to change the culture within the organization.

“There’s a culture in law enforcement,” said Dr. Erroll Southers, director of SCI and Homegrown Violent Extremism Studies at USC Price. “I understand that culture very well, having been a veteran of three different law enforcement agencies, and a person of color in those agencies. This is not a policy problem. This is a cultural problem.”

To create that cultural shift, SCI instructor Alexandra Lieben led the recent full-day training, guiding the deputies through conflict resolution exercises emphasizing communication, negotiation and mediation.

Lieben also touched upon some of the fundamental causes of conflict and crises. She talked about how stress can prime people to act in unproductive ways that escalate conflict, and she provided stress-busting techniques ranging from breathing to muscle relaxation.

In addition, she addressed the powerful messages that the sheriffs convey through their body language, facial expressions, tone of voice and appearance.

“They already come with this command and control appearance and really a lot of force merely by the way they are dressed: tactical gear, gun belts, boots, the way they stand,” said Lieben, who is also the Deputy Director of the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations. “All of that is designed to preserve their lives, but it signals something to the members of the community. And it’s often intimidating, if not threatening. So I talk with them: ‘Look, you’re already signaling so much. You can afford to back off.’ ”

Throughout the day, the deputies shared real-life scenarios, and discussed ways to de-escalate crises, promote conciliation and resolve conflicts.

Looking ahead, SCI will remain engaged with all the cohorts of deputies, along with their command staff, during monthly Zoom debriefs.

“We’re trying to be consistent with this training,” said Jessie Redd, the academic program specialist at SCI. “So Alexandra is going to hold Zoom meetings and check in with the officers to see if they were able to apply any of what they learned to their daily work.”

The first of these debriefs will take place on December 3, and Lieben is looking forward to opening up a space for cultural change. “This is the beginning of the journey, and we are really excited about that,” said Lieben. “If we’re talking about a silver lining from what happened over the last year, if we can transform this into a constructive process, then I will be very happy. It will be good for us.”

This article was originally published by the USC Price School of Public Policy.

Safe Communities Institute

The Safe Communities Institute (SCI) at the USC Price School of Public Policy continues a more than 60-year tradition of research, interdisciplinary education, and collaboration to advance sustainable “whole-of-community” public safety strategies, policies, and programs. SCI takes a holistic approach to encouraging and informing public safety efforts through collaboration between all public safety disciplines and the communities they serve.

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