7 easy steps to successful de-escalation

De-escalation is nothing new — it’s been around since the beginning of policing, and good officers are skilled at this invaluable, life-saving tool


De-escalation is the buzzword of the day. You’re probably sick of hearing it. IACP and PERF are writing about it. It’s in the media. Politicians are talking about is. But de-escalation is nothing new — it’s been around since the beginning of policing, and good officers are skilled at this invaluable, lifesaving tool. The following are seven easy steps to remember for effective de-escalation.

1. Don’t be a jerk. Many departments have at least one — the one officer who you’d hate to see stop a family member or a friend because you know that officer will treat them badly. I worked with people who seemed to enjoy provoking and ridiculing people. It's not smart, it’s not nice, and it’s not safe. 

Be the person who diffuses a tense situation, not the person who causes trouble. We all want to be treated with respect. We especially want to be treated with respect in front of our friends and family. Think about how you’d react if someone spoke to you in a disrespectful, sarcastic, condescending manner in front of your spouse or kids. Don't do it to others.

2. “If you start out nice, you can always get mean, but if you start out mean, you can never be nice.” This is closely related to #1 above. If you start out being a jerk at the beginning of the contact, you can never then go back to being respectful and professional. You’ve already poisoned the encounter with that person. But if you start out in a professional and respectful fashion, you can always move to appropriate force if necessary.

3. Communicate. We’ve all heard about verbal judo. It’s simply effective communication. Like any skill, some officers are better at it than others. While it’s extremely difficult to deal with people under the influence or the mentally ill, most people do operate on logic. My favorite line from verbal judo is, “Is there anything I can say or do that will get you to comply with my commands?” 

Listen to the response. At best, they may need to vent and then be happy to comply. At worst, they will respond with lots of expletives and other bad words that basically mean “no.” Now, by the suspect’s own actions and words, it’s clear that force is required and you will document that in your report. 

4. Be the 57-year-old you, not the 17-year-old you. I teach officers how to de-escalate a situation, and sometimes I feel a little hypocritical because I know I’m a very different person at 57 than I was at 17, 27, or even 37. People can talk trash and call me all sorts of things, and it doesn’t bother me. 

Unless I feel physically threatened, they can blow off steam and say what they want and my feathers won't get ruffled. But I also know that when I was 17, my reaction would have been completely different. I would have been ready to fight. It’s easy to take the mature route when you are, well, old. It’s tougher when you’re young and full of piss and vinegar. There is a mantra that will help with this, and that is …

5. “Don’t take it personally, don't make it personal.” This bit of advice came from one of the smartest people I know. I use it in my leadership lectures, but it also applies to dealing with people on the street. If someone is calling you names and behaving disrespectfully toward you, recognize it’s not about you. It’s not personal. They don't know you or anything about you. They may hate the badge, the uniform, or what you stand for. That’s their problem, not yours. 

So take a deep breath, realize it’s not personal, and continue to do your job in a professional manner. We only get angry when we personalize their insults and behavior.

6. Don’t hang out with angry people. If I were any mellower, I’d be asleep. But recently I had a close friend remind me I wasn’t always that way. In fact, I was quite the jerk. At one time in my life I was a very angry person. I think we’ve all been there at some point. Maybe you’re going through an ugly divorce, a family member is in ill health, or a combination of events make us mad at the world. This is a very dangerous mindset for a cop. It can get you killed, it can get your partner killed, and it can easily get you sued or criminally prosecuted if you don’t get your anger in check. 

Whatever you have to do to go to your happy place when you start your shift, do it. And if you know you’re wound so tightly you’re ready to explode, don't go to work that day. Take a mental health day off. Seek counseling if you need it. But don't go to work angry. Also, don't hang out with angry people because they put you in a bad mood and suck the life out of you. Create friendships with those officers with a sunny disposition and an optimistic outlook. 

7. Finally, and most importantly, de-escalation never means compromising officer safety. Some officers think that all this de-escalation talk minimizes their safety. It doesn’t. You should always be respectful to the public, you should always be professional, but you should always be prepared for an attack. I can smile, speak politely and respectfully, but still maintain an appropriate distance, stay in a bladed, balanced stance, have command presence, and be prepared to respond to any threat. 

When dealing with the public, always behave as if a camera is filming you (because one probably is), don't say or do anything that would embarrass you or your department if it was on the evening news, and always be ready for that attack. 

Those are my seven steps to de-escalation. Add yours in the comments area below.

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