What the public needs to know about police de-escalation tactics

Police departments have been training their officers to use these tactics for many years, but it’s a two-way street


“Agencies should adopt General Orders and/or policy statements making it clear that de-escalation is the preferred, tactically sound approach in many critical incidents.”

“De-escalation should be a core theme of an agency’s training program.”

Unless you have been living under a rock, you have heard these and other cries that law enforcement must be trained in “de-escalation” tactics. Unless you have been living under the neighboring rock, you know that contemporary law enforcement training has been including “de-escalation” training for many years. These training sessions have involved:

1. Effective communications – verbal persuasion tactics,

2. Using distance, cover and time when appropriate, and

3. Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training.

Not a New Idea
The idea of “de-escalation” training is nothing new to most law enforcement trainers. We have been conducting this training via traditional classroom activities, video training, and scenario-based training for years. If feasible, based on the totality of the circumstances known, most every cop would agree that it would be desirable to resolve an incident without having to resort to using force.

Here’s the catch: the subject and his/her actions and behaviors will drive the situation and therefore the manner in which it will be resolved. If the subject is unwilling or unable to participate in the communication/de-escalation process, there can be no de-escalation.

For communications to be effective, both parties must participate. The level of participation from the subject will often depend on their ability and/or desire to participate in the communication process. An officer cannot force a subject to participate in the communication process – this decision is the subject’s entirely.

There is absolutely a recognition that these “de-escalation” tactics can work. There are many specific examples of “de-escalation” tactics working to calm a subject down and enabling the officer to take the subject into custody without incident. I have heard chiefs and other law enforcement personnel tell stories of these tactics working. In these situations, I would applaud the officers for their efforts and also congratulate the subject on his/her choice to allow the situation to “de-escalate.”

Not Automatically Successful
Unfortunately, there are also several examples of when “de-escalation” tactics did not work. Some might rush to an improper conclusion that the officers “did not do it right” but that would be a naïve conclusion to apply to all of these situations.

Sometimes “de-escalation” can include an early show of force or even an early force response when appropriate in order to resolve the situation at a “lower” force response level and not to allow the situation to get out-of-hand and result in a “higher” force response.

When I hear these continued cries for “de-escalation” training from the public, I tell them plainly that law enforcement has been training in these tactics for years. I tell them that not only have we been training in these tactics, but that we continue to practice these skills as they are truly perishable skills (when we don’t use them – we lose them). I then remind them that there are at least two roles in these types of situations — law enforcement’s and the subject’s. For these “de-escalation” tactics to work well, both sides of the equation — the subject and the officer — need to play their role.

Rather than continually attempt to place the blame only on law enforcement, it’s important for the public to know that it’s a two-way street. Law enforcement has been trained in these tactics for years – it is the subject that drives the result.

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