Book excerpt: How Smart Police Officers Use Situational Awareness to Improve Safety
Deploying good de-escalation techniques and conflict management skills can save your life
The following is excerpted from "How Smart Police Officers Use Situational Awareness to Improve Safety" by Richard B. Gasaway and Drew W. Moldenhauer. Improving situational awareness is the goal of every smart police officer. This book will help officers and supervisors improve safety by exploring how to develop and maintain strong situational awareness and how to improve high-risk, high-consequence decision-making. Click here to order your copy. Use code BLUE38 to save 10% off the list price.
We know that situational awareness is the ability to perceive and understand what is happening around you while being mindful of time passing, and then being able to accurately predict future events in time to avoid bad outcomes.
This is very important when it comes to conflict management and de-escalation as well. As a young police officer, I didn’t know the proper ways to de-escalate situations and I had very poor situational awareness. I wasn’t able to read people’s body language and perceive what it was telling me. I often used attack words such as “calm down!” or “come here!” while using my fingers to motion them to walk toward me. Unbeknownst to me, this was actually having the reverse effect. I wasn’t de-escalating the situation. I was actually escalating the situation.
It took me several years on the job as a patrol officer to recognize people’s body language and then to deploy empathy to de-escalate the situation. I learned how to understand what makes people upset during a crisis situation. Often, I was the first face they saw. I don’t think they were intentionally displaying anger toward me. They were simply upset and not thinking rationally. Deploying good de-escalation techniques and conflict management skills can save your life.
To help, I developed a process (and an acronym) police officers can use to help gain compliance and maintain good situational awareness. I call it the B-R-E-A-T-H-E technique.
Breathe: Take a couple of slow, deep breaths to relax while using your perception skills. Breathing can help calm you down and allow you to think rationally and rational thinking is critical to good decision-making. What is the person you’re dealing with telling you, both verbally and non-verbally? Controlled breathing can help reduce the undesirable effects of stress (e.g., tunnel vision) and relax your mind to think logically.
Recognize: Be vigilant of what’s happening around you while being mindful of how time is passing. What’s being discussed? Have you seen this situation before? For example, does the suspect you’re dealing with have his/her hands in their pockets and won’t take them out? Is your red flag warning sign going off? By recognizing a situation like this, you can keep yourself safe and rely on training. By recognizing the danger signs (clues and cues) you’re displaying good situational awareness.
Examine: Is this an emotional situation or logical situation? Is this person you’re trying to de-escalate in a logical state of mind or are they highly emotional and possibly in a crisis situation? I can remember some people coming into our lobby of the police department very agitated because they just received a parking ticket. I examined them and determined they were in an emotionally charged state and not thinking logically. It’s a good idea to empathize with people in this situation and repeat back to them what they’re saying by using good active listening skills. Empathy can calm emotions.
Abstain: Restrain yourself from engaging in conflict or from making a quick, irrational decision. Again, take your time and don’t rush the situation. Like most problems to be solved, slowing the pace and allowing some time for emotions to settle down usually leads to better decisions and better outcomes.
Think: Think of your course of action. Restrain yourself from engaging in conflict or a quick irrational decision. This is very tough to do. Like many officers, I have struggled to restrain myself many times. And when I failed to properly restrain myself, it usually led to a physical confrontation, which could have resulted in me getting hurt or becoming the subject of legal action.
Stressed brains revert to basic human instinct, of which the foundation is survival. This can trigger an automatic fight-or-flight response. When an officer is under severe stress and the fight or flight kicks in, the officer no longer has conscious control over their response. And this is where things can go wrong quickly. Take a second to breathe and try your best to not let the person you’re dealing with trigger your emotions. They are behaving emotionally and having an emotional response. You’re the one that needs to have a calming presence and be the voice of reason. Think ahead of the situation and predict where it could go and how you can prevent a bad outcome.
Handle: Take care of the situation in a calm and professional manner. As police officers, we are trusted by the public to display a calming presence. We must show we can handle the situation professionally. If we don’t, the situation can spin out of control quickly and use of force may escalate. Under extreme stress, we can experience multiple barriers that can impact situational awareness and performance, including tunnel vision (narrowing of our visual field), auditory exclusion (going deaf) and loss of fine motor skills. We will perform best when we remain calm. We can practice controlling our stress by practicing de-escalation techniques during realistic scenario-based training.
Examine: After an encounter, ask yourself what went well? How can you perform better in the future? Debriefing is so important in everything we do. We will be well-served to identify opportunities where we can improve our conflict management and de-escalation skills. As police officers, we know that every call is different. With experience, we become better at reading people and improve our situational awareness skills over time. Building scenario-based verbal de-escalation training into your annual use-of-force training can be very beneficial.
De-escalation is very important in everyday life. Whether we’re talking with our co-workers, a significant other, or our kids, good de-escalation techniques are extremely valuable. Learn how to recognize when someone is in a highly emotional state and not thinking rationally. Good de-escalation techniques can help save relationships and prevent destroying friendships and marriages.
The next time you see someone in a highly emotional state and not thinking rationally don’t tell them to CALM DOWN! This never works. Instead, use good active listening skills and say something like: “I just want to make sure I’m hearing you correctly. Is this what you’re telling me (fill in the blank).” This shows you’re using good active listening skills and you’re repeating back what the person has said.
- Share some examples where you have used de-escalation and conflict management skills.
- Discuss the training your department has in place to incorporate de-escalation and conflict management strategies.
- Discuss how you can assist your partners if you notice they are struggling with these techniques.
About the authors
Drew W. Moldenhauer, M.S., has 15 years of law enforcement experience with two police organizations in Minnesota. Some of the titles he has held in his tenure are active shooter instructor, use of force instructor, Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) instructor and Field Training Officer. He is currently a full-time licensed police officer who works part-time with the City of Osseo Police Department. He holds a Master’s Degree of Science in Public Safety Executive Leadership from St. Cloud State University. He is a Certified Master Instructor for Situational Awareness Matters and has a passion for training his clients on this very important subject. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Richard B. Gasaway, Ph.D., CSP is widely considered a trusted authority on human factors, situational awareness and the high-risk decision-making processes used in high-stress, high-consequence work environments. He served 33 years on the front lines as a firefighter, EMT-Paramedic, company officer, training officer, fire chief and emergency incident commander. His doctoral research included the study of cognitive neuroscience to understand how human factors flaw situational awareness and impact high-risk decision-making. He is the founder and CEO for Situational Awareness Matters, a teaching and consulting organization located in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He can be reached at Rich@RichGasaway.com.