When and how: Law enforcement de-escalation in mental health crises

Whenever officers respond to calls, they must constantly assess the mission they are tasked with – and that mission can change at any time


In conversations around police reform, response to people experiencing a mental health crisis is central, as we have seen many tragedies involving police response to these individuals in crisis. Over the past several decades, law enforcement has become the de facto mental health crisis response in the United States, but no steps have been taken across the board to prepare law enforcement professionals for this reality. How should officers respond to people in crisis? In a recent webinar, "Response to People in Crisis: Mitigating Harm & Enhancing the Safety of All Involved," Chief (Ret.) Mike Ranalli and Laura Scarry discuss the origins of this issue, and the roles of communication and de-escalation in crisis response.

Different Calls, Different Tactics

Police professionals arrive on scene and must make a rapid assessment of the situation. While there is not legal duty to prevent self-harm, responding officers often feel they have a duty to act: They must do something – walking away is not an option. But it’s critical to understand the difference between a moral duty to act and a legal duty to act.

New York City Police Officer Lamont Edwards talks to actor Nathan Purdee during a Crisis Intervention Training class at the New York Police Department Police Academy.
New York City Police Officer Lamont Edwards talks to actor Nathan Purdee during a Crisis Intervention Training class at the New York Police Department Police Academy. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

This perspective on mental health crisis response is meant to empower officers with information to help them make the best decisions possible, avoiding tragedy. Because most law enforcement officers are in the profession to help others – including those who are a potential risk to themselves – engaging can seem like the only course of action. But when responding to this type of non-criminal mental health call, doing nothing may be the best decision.

It is important for officers not to rush into situations simply because they feel the obligation to respond. It can sometimes be a greater risk to engage with the individual in crisis, leading to tragedy for the individual and leaving officers mentally scarred. Whenever officers respond to calls, they must constantly assess the mission they are tasked with – and that mission can change at any time.

Crisis Communication vs. Conflict Communication

When engaging individuals in crisis, officers should evaluate the potential success of a de-escalation attempt. What state of communication is the individual in? What is the best way to approach and interact with them? Officers need to understand the key differences between conflict communication and crisis communication – specifically, knowing what it means when engaging people in crisis.

  • Conflict communication is when the subject’s attitude is one of utter refusal. The subject completely refuses to cooperate and the officer may or may not be in a position to employ de-escalation tactics.

  • Crisis communication occurs when it is apparent that the individual is dealing with some sort of crisis and searching for potential solutions. The goal is to help the subject regain control and arrive at a meaningful, safe resolution.

When the subject is operating under "conflict communication," de-escalation is not necessarily impossible, but the scope looks different. It is crucial to put the power of decision in the subject’s hands. The officer should stay calm and avoid acting out of anger or frustration. To transfer the decision-making power to the subject, fully explain the situation and the consequences of the subject’s decision to comply or resist. This avoids unnecessarily escalating the situation from the officer’s end.

Conversely, crisis communication arises out of a "How can I help you?" angle. As officer de-escalate the situation, they seek to help the subject solve their perceived problem. To influence the subject, officers need to understand their perspective. Focusing on a person’s behavior, how they are thinking and how they are feeling, rather than trying to diagnose them on the spot, can help officers point them toward that meaningful resolution.

When considering de-escalation, it is crucial to note the person in crisis must participate as well. The de-escalation process requires determining if the subject actually understands what is being said to them and if the subject is responsive to de-escalation attempts. Because of this, de-escalation is not possible in every situation. But good policy and training help officers know when de-escalation is achievable and how to successfully achieve it.

De-Escalation as Policy

We all know it: De-escalation is a buzz word – it's something that police reformers focus on, and for good reason. De-escalation isn’t a new concept. It has been discussed and adopted in many agencies’ policy manuals over the last several years. 

Lexipol's Use of Force Policy language addresses de-escalation as:

  • When circumstances reasonably permit, officers should use nonviolent strategies and techniques to decrease the intensity of the situation, improve decision-making, improve communication, reduce the need for force and increase voluntary compliance (e.g. summoning additional resources, formulating a plan, attempting verbal persuasion).

Specific policies where de-escalation is further addressed include the Crisis Intervention Policy, Civil Disputes Policy and the Civil Commitments Policy (protective custody).

De-escalation really should be in your policy, but that is not enough on its own. We must train on what de-escalation is, what it encompasses and how to properly execute de-escalation techniques. The bottom line is communication. Communication is the central function of de-escalation and requires extensive training for adequate response to, reaction to and interaction with subjects in stressful and dynamic situations. When under pressure, good and consistent training on communication and de-escalation will make a difference.

While de-escalation encapsulates many issues, it is exceptionally relevant in response to mental health crises. To learn more about law enforcement response to mental health crises, de-escalation and more, check out the on-demand webinar, "Response to People in Crisis: Mitigating Harm & Enhancing the Safety of All Involved."

NEXT: Integrating de-escalation techniques into policing

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