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How to train to safely de-escalate someone in crisis

A new program from VirTra teaches officers how to recognize mental health challenges and how to respond appropriately


Sponsored by VirTra

By Rachel Zoch, Police1 BrandFocus Staff

Most cops don’t have a degree in counseling or social work, but people call 911 and law enforcement for crisis behavior when they don’t know what else to do. That means it’s important for officers to have a solid understanding of how to respond appropriately to promote the safety of those they serve, as well as their own safety.

The new “Mental Illness for Contact Professionals” de-escalation curriculum from VirTra is designed to teach officers how to recognize the signs, symptoms and behaviors associated with mental illness and develop the skills needed for a safe and successful response. (image/Pixabay)
The new “Mental Illness for Contact Professionals” de-escalation curriculum from VirTra is designed to teach officers how to recognize the signs, symptoms and behaviors associated with mental illness and develop the skills needed for a safe and successful response. (image/Pixabay)

“We’re the ones that get called,” said Nicole Florisi, a former police sergeant, trainer and crisis negotiator, “so we’re primarily going to be the first people on scene to be able to help that person. That’s why the training is so important.”

Training designed by cops, for cops 

Florisi, a public safety veteran of over 20 years, also holds a master’s degree in counseling. She drew on her background in dispatch, policing, training and crisis negotiation – as well as her counseling experience – to write the new “Mental Illness for Contact Professionals” de-escalation curriculum from VirTra. The program is designed to teach officers and other first responders how to recognize the signs, symptoms and behaviors associated with mental illness and develop the skills needed for a safe and successful response.

“As cliché as it can sound, we get into law enforcement or public safety because we want to help people,” she said, “so the more training and the more skills we can get underneath us to be effective in that is important.”

The curriculum covers specific elements of common conditions, including dementia, depression, anxiety, PTSD and substance use, and it includes 11 hours of classroom training and six interactive scenarios to develop de-escalation skills and split-second decision-making.

Communication is just as tactical as firearms response, says Florisi, but she finds it frustrating that training for communication and de-escalation are usually taught separately from firearms and use of force.

“That training shouldn’t be siloed,” she said. “We should be training for that together, because it’s all branches of the same tree.”

Nicole Florisi, a former police sergeant, trainer and crisis negotiator, helped create the new “Mental Illness for Contact Professionals” de-escalation curriculum from VirTra. (image/Nicole Florisi)
Nicole Florisi, a former police sergeant, trainer and crisis negotiator, helped create the new “Mental Illness for Contact Professionals” de-escalation curriculum from VirTra. (image/Nicole Florisi)

The new curriculum combines all these elements into six base scenarios, each with multiple branches to change the outcome depending on the trainee’s response. The key goal, says Florisi, is to help officers recognize telltale behaviors that indicate a person in crisis.

“When you’re working with people and you can recognize those behaviors, you have a better opportunity to try and help someone,” she said.

‘What is our role, and how do we respond?’ 

The program covers several different response functions, including the roles of both law enforcement and mental health professionals.

“What is our role, and how do we respond?” said Florisi. “What is really critical in the program is the recognition of behaviors, because a person’s behavior is what drives our response for whatever kind of intervention it’s going to be.”

Specifically, the curriculum covers multiple diagnoses and the role of the officer in each scenario, as well as specific crisis de-escalation skills to manage the situation. It also covers what can happen and what to do when you can’t de-escalate.

“I think we set ourselves up for failure if we truly think we, no matter how great of a communicator we are, can de-escalate every single person. That’s not possible,” she said. “So, what do we do when we can’t?”

What you’ll learn 

Florisi and the VirTra team spent more than a year developing the mental health de-escalation scenarios, and the program is now available. The three key things officers can expect to learn from the new curriculum are:

  • How to recognize behaviors indicative of impairment versus hostile intent.
  • Skills and strategies for de-escalation.
  • Barriers to de-escalation and how to choose the appropriate response.

The classroom portion of the curriculum breaks down the details of recognizing specific categories, including anxiety, depression and substance use, and the simulation helps officers apply these lessons to better address the behaviors associated with each of them.

Florisi says the simulated environment is what makes this training more effective than just talking about mental health and crisis behaviors.

“I’m a big fan of simulator training and the immersive aspect of it,” said Florisi. “It gives officers a different perspective when they have to make split-second decisions and what could easily be a life-altering decision. We’ve got just that minimal amount of time to make a really good decision with limited information.”

Florisi says simulation is especially helpful for this kind of training because having multiple potential outcomes for each of the scenarios means officers won’t get the same result each time and must learn to adapt in the moment. The simulator also provides a realistic learning environment where trainees experience the stresses of the job, but without the same risk of injury.

“It’s that real-world application that makes the difference and elicits a stress response from the officers,” she said. “They learn effective solutions to what could be common problems for law enforcement and build on that so they can make better decisions as time goes on. You get the chance to learn from your mistakes and avoid them in the future, but there’s no real-world consequences attached to it. You just learn.”

When use of force is necessary 

Use of force is always going to be a challenge for law enforcement, and the de-escalation curriculum is designed to help officers better recognize and manage a situation when force may be their only option, as well as to justify that force after the fact.

“Sometimes when you can’t de-escalate someone, the officer’s only option might be some type of use of force,” said Florisi, “but you have to recognize that sometimes that’s your option and no amount of communication or de-escalation is going to work.”

Knowing and applying what’s appropriate to the situation is the key, she adds. Training with the new curriculum will help officers better know what the appropriate response is when they do have to resort to force.

Overall, Florisi says, the goal is safety for everybody.

“We have to be appropriate and tactical in our de-escalation and responses to somebody, whether it’s mental illness, crisis, just concerning behaviors, whatever the case may be,” she said. “The focus is recognizing indicators and signs that go with behaviors and not to compromise your safety because it’s a behavioral health call.”

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