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For safer scenes and greater support, practice de-escalation

Have you tried to talk things down before turning to force? This checklist may help


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By James Ross

The importance of de-escalation for law enforcement cannot be overstated.

The topic has gained attention in recent years due to multiple high-profile events that involved great bodily harm or the use of deadly force. These events have reinforced the views of some who see peace officers as heavy-handed, unreasonable and lacking empathy. Training in, exposure to and participation in active de-escalation can help dispel this and has numerous other benefits for officers, agencies and citizens.

By attempting de-escalation tactics when viable, peace officers may significantly reduce the need for the use of force. Law enforcement needs a concentrated effort where the focus on de-escalation is paramount.

De-escalation tactics and best practices: A checklist

The term “de-escalation” refers to a wide range of strategies and tactics. The goal of de-escalation is to reduce the likelihood of needing force or the amount of force required to resolve a potentially volatile situation. The following checklist of de-escalation tactics and best practices can be applied to a variety of calls.

1. Responding peace officers should, as soon as possible, conduct a threat assessment of the event so as not to promote an unnecessary, unreasonable, or disproportionate use of force by placing themselves or others in undue jeopardy. This step is the starting point and is based on information relayed to and from dispatchers. Gathering further intelligence should be an ongoing process, as police calls are often dynamic.

Some of the critical questions officers ought to be asking are:

  • What do I know about this situation so far?
  • What additional information do I need?
  • What is the best way to get that information?
  • What does my training and experience tell me about this type of incident?

Responding officers should also seek information from others, including dispatchers, supervisors and other officers, as well as agency computer networks that may contain valuable information related to persons, addresses, or previous calls for service.

Further questions officers should be asking may include:

  • Who called the police, and what prompted the call?
  • Who at the location may be able to provide live updates?
  • What prior information do we have about the involved parties?
  • What is the physical environment at the call, and does it provide any response insight?
  • Are there weapons at the scene?
  • Are there issues of mental illness or substance abuse involved?

By asking these crucial questions, officers will have a better idea about the nature of the call, response needs and the possible pooling of additional resources.

2. Responding officers need to consider if the matter is police-related with statutory considerations or if it is a civil matter, and what other departments or personnel may need to be involved. It is also paramount that officers pay close attention to department policies related to handling certain calls for service, relevant state statutes, constitutional considerations and use-of-force policies, as well as agency de-escalation expectations.

Officers should be aware they may be held responsible under the premise of state-created danger. State-created danger is a legal doctrine where officers can be held liable for injuries or deaths that occur because of a danger they created.

3. Using communication to gain voluntary compliance should be the goal. This voluntary compliance may be obtained by verbal persuasion and giving clear instructions. Individuals cannot be expected to comply with officers if they are being bombarded by numerous officers giving conflicting commands. Warnings given as a threat of force against an individual are not considered part of de-escalation and should be avoided.

4. Treating individuals with equity and dignity to calm agitation and promote rational decision-making will promote de-escalation. Responding officers should avoid using language that is insulting and taunting in nature, which could lead to escalating the situation.

5. If an individual is simply not responding to officers, it does not immediately mean force should or can be applied. There are many individuals who may lack the ability to hear or have an injury that contributes to their inability to respond to officers. Additionally, individuals going through a mental health crisis may have lost the ability to communicate.

Peace officers must also be aware that physical noncompliance does not automatically mean resistance. While taking in the totality of the circumstances, officers should attempt to determine if an individual has physical limitations that may be affecting their ability to comply. Physical limitations could be an inability to speak, hear, walk, or even move limbs. Awareness on scene may help eliminate confusion that can lead to unnecessary force being applied.

6. Time and distance are proven strategies that aid the officer as well as the involved party during a dynamic event. Additionally, when there are more officers on scene to assist, it is likely less force will be used.

7. Another important factor to consider is an officer’s emotional intelligence. Officers who successfully manage their emotions and retain social skills will better be able to use de-escalation as a viable tactic. Peace officers must also be able to show empathy, which is the ability to consider other people’s feelings, especially when making decisions if they are genuinely attempting to use de-escalation.

Benefits of de-escalation

The benefits of sound de-escalation strategies are numerous:

  • Officers can improve their ability to manage people and situations in a way that helps establish contact, build rapport and positively influence individuals to peacefully resolve calls for service.
  • By attempting de-escalation tactics, officers may significantly reduce the need for use of force, which ought to benefit all those involved and the profession in general.
  • De-escalation helps officers stay focused and calm during dynamic situations, which may greatly improve chaotic moments and aid in peaceful conclusions.
  • De-escalation should be thought of as an opportunity to build skills and further develop or enhance trust-based relationships. Peace officers who routinely respond to calls for service are fully aware of the value and importance of positive relationships and ought to be doing everything in their power to maintain them.
  • By practically applying sound de-escalation tactics like remaining calm, taking a strong nonaggressive/defensive posture, speaking slowly with an empathetic tone and using short and simple phrases, officers will be better able to calm dynamic events and enhance trust with participants.


Use-of-force encounters involving great bodily harm or death have attracted widespread criticism of peace officer conduct. In the wake of that criticism, more is expected of law enforcement agencies and individual officers alike. Although use-of-force encounters are statistically rare, more can be done to reduce conflict between peace officers and the communities they serve. New laws and conduct expectations are guiding the way many officers perform their duties. By training on and embracing sound de-escalation tactics, officers will be better able to protect themselves and serve their communities. Society and the law enforcement profession depend on it.

NEXT: True de-escalation is a mindset before it’s a tactic

About the author

James Ross is a detective with the Blaine Police Department in Blaine, Minnesota and is currently assigned to the Special Operations Division. Detective Ross is a proud United States Marine Corps combat veteran with almost two decades of law enforcement experience. In addition to his duties as a detective, he is currently a use of force and firearms instructor, a less lethal impact munitions instructor, a grenadier instructor and an armorer for all of his agency’s platforms. Detective Ross deployed as a grenadier to Minneapolis, the Minnesota State Capital, as well as Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, during the civil unrest in 2020 and 2021 as part of the City of Blaine’s Mobile Field Force response to assist other local agencies during those times. Detective Ross has a B.A. in Criminal Justice from St. Cloud State University and an M.A. in Criminal Justice Leadership from Concordia University, St. Paul.