De-escalation vs. Disengagement
Two ways to avoid using deadly force
“Sometimes de-escalation doesn’t work because the other person is not willing to be de-escalated.” Steve Moses told me this. He’s a respected firearms instructor and a CCW Safe contributor.
So many of the self-defense cases I’ve studied for CCW Safe had tragic results that could have been avoided if the defender had made an effort to de-escalate the situation. Michael Drejka chose to start an argument with Brittany Jacobs, an argument that led to the shooting of Markis McGlockton. Gyrell Lee chose to meet Quinton Epps on the street after hours of escalating tension, a decision which led to a deadly shootout. Each of these defenders had an opportunity to turn down the rhetoric for the sake of avoiding bloodshed.
But to Steve’s point, some defenders we’ve studied faced attackers who were not willing to be de-escalated. Rahim Muhammad seemed unwilling to listen to reason during an argument following a vehicle collision. Similarly, David Crofut failed to heed Gerald Strebendt’s demands to “stay back” -- even as Strebendt pointed a rifle at the aggressor's head.
For each of these cases, Steve Moses made an interesting recommendation: walk away. When de-escalation fails, Steve says, “disengagement is often still available.”
In the Alexander Weiss case, Weiss’ vehicle was still operational after Muhammad’s vehicle rear-ended it. When Muhammad and his friend Noah Dukart threatened to kill Weiss if he called police, Weiss may have had a good indication the teenaged assailants weren’t in a state of mind to talk reasonably about exchanging insurance information. Nonetheless, he decided to stick around, and to justify that decision, Weiss testified at trial that it’s illegal to leave the scene of an accident. While that’s technically true, CCW Safe National Trial Counsel Don West says law enforcement is unlikely to criticize someone who left the scene due to legitimate safety concerns, especially if they reach out to authorities to report the incident.
At one point during the confrontation, Weiss returned to his vehicle to retrieve his cell phone and his pistol. At that time, he had the opportunity to start up the vehicle, drive off, and put a couple hundred yards between himself and his aggressors, but he didn’t do that. When Weiss re-engaged the teenagers, they closed on him, and returning to his vehicle was no longer an option. Steve Moses suggested a tactic that involves walking away at a circular arc that will allow the defender to keep an eye on the threat until it’s safe to break away completely. It’s unlikely Muhammad and Dukart would have given pursuit, and even if they had, Weiss would have had a much stronger self-defense claim.
Steve offered similar commentary in the Gerald Strebendt case. Strebendt, a veteran Marine sniper and former professional MMA fighter, was rear-ended by David Crofut at night on an isolated stretch of highway. Crofut began shouting threats and obscenities, and like Weiss, Strebendt grabbed his cell phone and a firearm from his vehicle and engaged the other driver. While Weiss had a pistol, Strebendt had an AR-15-style rifle.
Despite the menacing defensive display, Crofut kept advancing. On the recording of Strebendt’s 911 call, he can be heard shouting multiple times for Crofut to “back off” and “stay back.” Strebendt slowly backed 80 feet away from his vehicle into darkness before he decided he would back away no further. Crofut got close enough to put his hands on Strebendt’s rifle before the Marine veteran fired a single fatal shot. But why didn’t Strebendt keep backing away? He could have simply kept walking and waited for police to arrive, or at least until he was forced to stop by circumstances outside of his control that made further movement impossible.
Maybe the idea of simply walking away sounds a little crazy. Perhaps it feels a little like cowardice, but that might be what makes disengagement so effective. As a deputy constable, Steve Moses has participated on tactical teams serving high-risk warrants, so no one would accuse him of being a coward, but he told me that, in more than one tense encounter in civilian life, “I’ve literally just walked off. There have been a few times when they’ve thrown profanities, but in other instances, they’ve just done nothing. They’ve just been so surprised by my response.”
“In some ways,” Steve admits, “I think they perceive that as a win on their part, and I certainly perceived it as a win on my part because nothing negative happened.”
In both the Weiss and Strebendt cases, “something negative happened.” Beyond the tragedy of unnecessary death, Weiss endured a two-year prosecution that ended when the prosecutor dropped the charges only because two juries at two different trials failed to reach a unanimous verdict. Strebendt, who had been denied bond, spent nearly two years in jail before striking a plea deal for reduced charges that would shorten his potential sentence.
Another Marine veteran, Keith Byrne, had a worse outcome than Weiss and Strebendt. Byrne was talking to a friend on the phone in his work truck when he inadvertently cut off another motorist, Andre Sinclair. According to the friend who was on the phone, Byrne rolled down the window to apologize. “My bad,” he said. Sinclair, however, exited his vehicle with a drawn pistol and approached Byrne’s work truck. Byrne pulled his pistol, and both men were struck during the subsequent gun fight. Byrne died in his truck, and Sinclair died later at a hospital. Had Byrne sped away from the conflict once he discovered Sinclair wasn’t reasonable, there is a good chance he would have survived the encounter. It’s tragically ironic in this case that Byrne’s attempt to de-escalate the encounter by rolling down his window and apologizing may have been misinterpreted by Sinclair and actually served to escalate the confrontation.
“What about stand-your-ground?” In his role as a criminal defense attorney, Don West says clients have cited “stand-your-ground” as a reason for not walking away from a fight. Don says, “I think that’s a legitimate issue in most people’s minds when they are in a place where they have the legal right to be, but it turns out to be a foolish decision when it comes to minimizing their legal risk and minimizing the risk of physical harm.” For those who live in states where the duty to retreat has been waived, defenders have to think hard about the value of the ground they feel justified to stand on and whether defending it is really worth the potential negative consequences.
The lesson for concealed carriers is that when attempts to de-escalate a confrontation fail, disengagement may still be an option. If you can do so safely, simply walking away from an impending fight without a word can potentially defuse the tension. If a potential threat follows and an encounter is inevitable, then you’ve shown yourself to be the more reasonable of the parties, and you’ve bolstered your own self-defense claim should circumstances ultimately warrant the use of deadly force.
SHAWN VINCENT- LITIGATION CONSULTANT
Shawn Vincent is a litigation consultant who helps select juries in self-defense cases, and he manages public interest of high-profile legal matters. If you have any questions for Shawn, or would like more articles like this, let us know belo