De-escalation can be quite a divisive term in the law enforcement community. Not just in principle, but in practice. We cannot agree on a definition. De-escalation techniques in application differ greatly from mandate and policy. The application also differs greatly from expectation; the expectation that you can connect and influence another person no matter what. Expectation is the root of disappointment. Unfortunately, in the case of law enforcement officers, this expectation can potentially result in litigation, job loss, discipline, and in some cases, the loss of the officer’s life. There are times when no amount of talking will resolve a situation and a quick application of force to resolve the situation is what is safest for everyone. No one likes that conversation though, not the public nor weak leaders.
I am going to let you in on a couple of secrets regarding de-escalation that we tip-toe around and do not address:
- You cannot de-escalate anyone.
- You cannot policy or mandate human connection.
However de-escalation is defined or framed, at the foundation you provide one thing; time, time for something to change. There is a saying in therapy that no feeling is final. I would encourage you not to say this to anyone, but to think about the implications of that statement. What we provide to someone in crisis is the time for something to change that will ideally result in a reduction in volatility. But we are not the ones doing the hard work. We may be using the best communication style to impact that person and we provide the space and the time, but that individual does the work to de-escalate. What changes with time? Emotions, hormones, neurochemical response, blood flow, thought processes…we provide the framework with what is best to address the person’s needs, the rest is up to the person to work through.
One of the most important tools in law enforcement is checking your own ego. If you think de-escalation is about you, think again. De-escalation is not about you; it is about the possibility of human connection and influence. If you cannot connect with someone, you cannot influence them. De-escalation is a participatory process and the other person must engage in the process. What about the population that cannot engage? Maybe the individual is so contaminated by the overwhelming emotions and crisis that participation is not possible. What if it is a medical emergency? And equally important, what if they choose not to? That is a population we do not talk enough about. The person who willingly chooses not to be part of the process. Individuals who are criminal minded and anti-law enforcement. What policy addresses that?
If we cannot look at human behavior in the realm of both possibilities and limitations, we have set officers up for failure. These are the conversations that need to happen far above my head. The conversations that address what is actually possible and not what looks good through a social justice lens that pits officers against the public based on an unachievable objective.
The change at the top may be infinitesimally slow, but there is an area that significantly impacts outcomes; training. Good training allows for the consideration of these factors. Research-based training methods can help officers choose the best type of communication strategies to allow for de-escalation to occur or recognize if verbal connection with the individual is possible. The ability for officers to recognize human behavior quickly and accurately to employ the most effective strategies leads to positive outcomes.