5 tips from Force Science on de-escalation tactics

Dealing with people in crisis is difficult. The only things a police officer can control are the decisions they make and the tactics they use


De-escalation is currently a buzz word in law enforcement. In my home state of Minnesota, the legislature has pushed over $10 million dollars toward police de-escalation and crisis response training. Consequently, many police trainers are creating presentations to meet the anticipated need for classes.

I recently attended such a class put on by the Force Science Institute (FSI), which focuses on science-based concepts, tactics and strategies for police de-escalation.

Here are five tips I picked up from FSI’s two-day class on the topic to help police officers better understand and deploy de-escalation tactics.

Police officers employ de-escalation on a daily basis. Unfortunately, because we usually don’t report it, there is little proof of how often law enforcement uses it. Like any skill, we can improve through practice and training. (Photo/Pixabay)
Police officers employ de-escalation on a daily basis. Unfortunately, because we usually don’t report it, there is little proof of how often law enforcement uses it. Like any skill, we can improve through practice and training. (Photo/Pixabay)

1. De-escalation is not just words, it is an integrated response.

Saying the right thing is a critical component to de-escalation. The power of persuasion is the most needed but least trained component of de-escalation. However, if you fail to understand that de-escalation begins with good information from dispatch, an understanding of proper tactics to deal with the specific situation, and training to prepare an officer to respond, then you cannot expect a positive outcome. All these parts must be practiced together in order for a police officer and a department to respond as effectively as possible.

2. If you cannot achieve contact, you cannot de-escalate.

If a subject is unable or unwilling to listen and respond to what you are saying, the de-escalation process cannot begin. A person’s mental, medical or emotional state may prohibit them from even being aware you are there. You cannot talk someone down if you don’t exist in their mind.

FSI founder and director Dr. Bill Lewinski suggests a tactic law enforcement could use that has been deployed in the psychiatric community for years. If it appears the person cannot hear you, try making a loud noise, immediately followed by you speaking in a pleasant manner. The loud noise may be enough to draw attention away from the voices they are already hearing. Once you have their attention, maintain a demeanor that will foster communication between you.

3. De-escalation begins with you.

In order to respond rationally and professionally, you have to prevent yourself from losing mental control and experiencing a “frontal lobe blackout.” Initiate tactical breathing to maintain a low heart rate and calm your brain.

Stress inoculation training allows police officers to experience and refine how to respond to stressful scenarios within the safe confines of a training environment. This improves the ability of officers to respond appropriately to real-life stressful situations with greater confidence gained through the experience.

4. Focus on the outcome, not the cause.

Expend energy and resources on resolving the situation at hand. By focusing on the desired outcome for the current situation, you avoid trying to deal with what has happened in the past. Understanding the cause of someone’s mental illness is nice, but it becomes secondary when they are armed with a knife endangering themselves and others in the present.

5. Police officers can do everything right and things can still go wrong.

Dealing with people in crisis is difficult and people under the influence of mental illness, drugs, alcohol, emotions or a combination, do not necessarily think or respond rationally. The response you get is beyond your control. The only things you control are yourself, the decisions you make and the tactics you use. The subject controls how they choose to respond and react.

Police officers employ de-escalation on a daily basis. Unfortunately, because we usually don’t report it, there is little proof of how often law enforcement uses it. Like any skill, we can improve through practice and training.

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