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De-escalation: Beyond the buzzword

De-escalation is safe and realistic only under specific conditions

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VirTra’s training simulators display different scenarios with different threat environments and actors showing different behaviors, including various stages of mental distress.


A use-of-force event leaves the suspect – a mentally ill individual – injured or killed. After such incidents, whatever the circumstances, there seems to be a kneejerk reaction among many politicians, police reform advocates and pundits who believe: The officer could have, should have avoided using force and de-escalated the person in crisis.

De-escalation has become a buzzword, a cure-all for inappropriate or excessive use-of-force policies and practices. Many police departments, motivated by good intentions, under pressure from the public or forced by legislative mandates, have introduced or intensified de-escalation training for their officers.

But often, it is unclear what de-escalation means. What skills are required? What conditions need to be in place for it to be effective? What are the best training approaches?

One common misunderstanding is that officers always have a choice – to engage or not engage in de-escalation. “But that’s not how it works,” said Lon Bartel, director of training and curriculum for VirTra, the global manufacturer of virtual reality and simulation technology for law enforcement and military training.

Another misconception is that de-escalation is something that police officers do to people, added Bartel, who is a retired law enforcement officer and instructor. Police “can only provide opportunity and – under certain circumstances – help create a framework where individuals are able to de-escalate themselves.”

But sometimes, people are unable to de-escalate. If, for example, a person is under the influence of alcohol or drugs, is in emotional distress or experiences a severe mental crisis, including hallucinations and paranoia, chances for them to respond to verbal de-escalation are slim, said Bartel. An officer “may or may not be able to talk them into a pair of handcuffs.”

Several other factors, which are all intertwined, determine whether de-escalation is realistic and possible: Officers must be able to create a zone of safety and set security perimeters to physically restrict the individual’s movements. The environment must allow for officers to establish full control of the scene. Innocent bystanders who could become hostages, a severe weather event or a growing hostile crowd could all hamper de-escalation efforts.


One of the most critical factors for the decision to engage in de-escalation is time, said Bartel, adding that the notion of “buying time” is not always an option. “Time is a competitive resource,” he said. “Sometimes conserving it works in your interest, sometimes spending it works in your interest.”

For example, if someone in mental distress pulls out a weapon, threatens to harm themselves and others, or refuses to respond to officers’ commands and instead tries to flee or fight, there’s no time for verbal de-escalation and officers need to go hands-on. “A quick tactical intervention may prevent the incident from spiraling out of control,” said Bartel.

Yet, in another scenario, there may be a barricaded subject. The scene is stabilized and there is no risk to anyone else. Officers can slow down, get more resources to the scene, and try to involve the individual in communication. In this case, time is on their side.

There’s no short, catchy definition of de-escalation, said Von Kliem, CEO of the Force Science Institute, which specializes in human dynamics research in the public safety sector. “De-escalation attempts to recognize, establish and maintain conditions that allow another person to lower their arousal state – and law enforcement to generate voluntary compliance,” he added. De-escalation can be used as a method or a process or set as a desired outcome. It’s a concept that is highly situational, fluid and complex, says Kliem.

Forcing de-escalation in a situation where the necessary conditions do not apply can potentially backfire, added VirTra’s Bartel, putting innocent civilians and officers at risk. He cites a recent example where a suspect held a child hostage in a house. One of the SWAT officers saw the child at the back window and the suspect was not there. The officer asked permission to get the child but was told to stand down.

“They were so fixated on having to attempt verbal de-escalation that they missed an opportunity to remove the victim from a dangerous situation” – and the overall scene from becoming less volatile, said Bartel.


Innovative and interactive de-escalation training can help officers decide when, where and how to engage in de-escalation, added Bartel.

VirTra’s training simulators display different scenarios with different threat environments and actors showing different behaviors, including various stages of mental distress. For example, “students learn to recognize somebody who they can possibly help de-escalate, but it takes some time,” explained Bartel. “Or they realize that with this particular individual, de-escalation isn’t possible and they have to take action fast.”

Training scenarios can be taught through a single-screen system or virtual reality headsets. VirTra uses a technology called volumetric capture, or volumetric video, which refers to filming a place, object, person or event in a way that appears in a three-dimensional space. When recording a person for training, the technology allows the viewer to rotate or move around to capture the different dimensions and components of communication, like facial expressions and body language.

While virtual reality still has limitations when it comes to ballistic accuracy, “it’s great for working on soft skills” like threat pattern recognition, situational awareness, understanding mental illness – and establishing a framework for de-escalation, said Bartel.

With the help of VirTra’s branching technology, trainees can experience the consequences of their tone of voice and the volume and speed of their verbal commands. The technology allows instructors to modify the situation based on students’ behaviors or add another layer of complexity to the scene – changing the suspect’s statements and actions or adding innocent victims into the environment. “That is the beauty and the power of simulation,” said Bartel.

VirTra’s simulation software offers scenarios with almost 90 possible outcomes, so it’s unlikely that trainees will see a scenario twice, he added. “They may see several evolutions of one scenario, but not the same version.”

Simulator training can also trigger a stress response in students, said Kliem, giving them opportunities to assess and practice their self-regulation and self-de-escalation skills – from controlling elevated heart rates with proper breathing techniques to focusing on active listening and problem solving.

The key advantage of VirTra’s training solutions is that they help officers integrate soft skills – including de-escalation skills – into a tactical scenario, said Force Science CEO Von Kliem. “Officers’ defensive tactics skills, their threat assessment skills and their communication skills should all be interwoven in high-fidelity practice,” he added. “But we don’t want that to happen for the first time when they’re on the street.”

State-of-the-art simulators allow for complex, real-life training in a safe environment, ultimately increasing the chances for de-escalation to be safe and effective for the suspect, the innocent bystanders and the responding officers – and leaving a mark beyond the buzz.

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Katja Ridderbusch is an award-winning print, radio and online journalist based in Atlanta. She reports on health care, criminal justice and law enforcement topics. Her work has appeared in outlets such as Time, the Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, USA Today, Kaiser Health News and more.