Posted on Feb. 8, 2022 by Kendrick Matthews

If we pooled law enforcement officers, we would find many different definitions regarding de-escalation. Is it a tactic? A tool? A goal? An outcome? A process? A buzzword in check the box training to placate the public, the media, or even management?

A second question…who is de-escalation for? A person with mental illness? In crisis? Someone exhibiting bizarre behavior? For yourself?

De-escalation is not a ‘result’ or an ‘outcome’ but a process.  It is a strategic approach to problem solving. It is part of an effective strategy to reduce the intensity of volatile situations balanced with reducing the necessity or level of force required for a positive outcome. De-escalation mirrors chess. It is strategic. Methodical. Systematic. It takes time to make the decisions needed for a win in chess. In our case, the win is a successful resolution. However, chess players have an abundance of what law enforcement does not always have…time.

Policing is a profession of emotions; the emotions of the person we interact with and our own emotions. We have a responsibility and obligation to remain calm and in control of ourselves. In that sense, the de-escalation process applies to officers as well. In essence, policing is a profession of managing emotions, ours included.

Should we abandon a sound tactical response in the de-escalation process? No. People in a crisis like state or who exhibit bizarre behavior are unpredictable and volatile. That brings with it the potential for violence. Perception drives behavior. Distance, space, and time are critical tools. We know we don’t always have those, but don’t overlook the potential to create them.

Can officers truly de-escalate people? No. The best negotiator in the world doesn’t de-escalate anyone. We can build rapport and relationships, but what that provides is time for emotions to change and evolve. What we truly do is allow the space for individuals to de-escalate themselves if de-escalation is possible at all.

De-escalation is not always possible. There is no magic phrase or magic wand that guarantees it can or will happen. If we cannot connect with someone, we cannot allow the space for de-escalation through verbal techniques and conversation.

Does de-escalation mean force is never required? No. A person’s behavior dictates the use of force. What doesn’t dictate use of force is a crisis state or whether someone has a mental illness. The crisis state doesn’t attempt to kill or harm people. Mental illness doesn’t attempt to kill or harm people. What creates the potential for violence is contaminated thinking, hallucinations, delusions…whatever it is that distorts a person’s perception of reality and their interaction with it.

The opposite end of that spectrum is choice. There are people in this world that want to harm and kill others. It is deliberate, it is purposeful, and it is almost impossible to de-escalate that through verbal techniques. Where is that conversation among law enforcement “leaders” when discussions of mandated de-escalation occur?

De-escalation can be a complex process. It requires critical thinking skills. It requires an understanding of human behavior. It requires tactical skills. It requires reading the situation correctly and implementing what is best in that moment…if there is time. IF there is time.

VirTra recognizes that it is critical to create the proper environment to develop the skills necessary to help facilitate the de-escalation process.

This article was written by Nicole Florisi, VirTra’s Law Enforcement Subject Matter Expert

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