Simple de-escalation strategies officers can deploy on every call
These commonsense strategies could help lessen tempers and reduce the risk of injury to officers and citizens
Our court system has repeatedly cited that law enforcement is inherently dangerous and that officers have to deal with fluid, dynamic and rapidly evolving situations. Our ability to learn from past incidents and develop relevant training is a primary way we seek to mitigate the risks associated with the hazards of policing.
Recently, it has been the law enforcement officer’s ability to conduct business in a manner that is as safe as possible that has come under scrutiny. Both civil and criminal courts have begun shifting the way they look at violent encounters between citizens and police. In many of these encounters, the courts have been asked to determine if there were options available to the officers that would have de-escalated the situation.
While every situation is different and must be judged on its own merits, some commonsense strategies could work in many situations to lessen tempers and reduce the risk of injury to officers and citizens. Let’s look at a few I’ve found to be helpful.
As a field training officer I constantly reinforced the need for recruits to stay alert, aware and prepared. I would ask questions like, “What is our exact location? Where is the nearest hospital? What is the quickest route to Main Street from here? What would you do if...?” These questions accomplished two key objectives. First, it taught the recruits how to develop a vigilant mindset and the importance of being aware of their surroundings. Second, it allowed them to visualize and practice something in their mind before they had to act similar to mental visualization techniques practiced by athletes.
Officers and investigators can practice these same techniques for de-escalating incidents. Ask yourself, “What if I arrive on scene and find someone highly agitated? What if they have access to an improvised weapon? What if they suddenly lock themselves in a vehicle or a room? What if all the commotion begins to draw a crowd around us?” By developing strategies beforehand and mentally practicing them, you will be mentally prepared and better equipped to de-escalate the situation.
Consider the Source
Law enforcement officers constantly evaluate investigative information as it is provided by outside sources. The information may be firsthand from a witness or victim or second hand as relayed from dispatch. Regardless of where the information comes from, take what you are told with a grain of salt. People tend to filter information based on their own experiences. Be careful not to escalate your response to a situation based on the information of others.
A victim or witness might attempt to use law enforcement’s response as a way to advance a personal agenda or in hopes of increasing the probability of an arrest, and so the report may be intentionally exaggerated. On the other hand, a person’s mental or emotional state may cause them to unintentionally distort their reporting. For example, someone who doesn’t handle confrontation very well may present an argument as an all-out brawl. In any event, keep an open mind about the incident and all of the parties involved until you have a chance to speak with everyone and reach your evidence-based conclusions.
Try to resist becoming “amped up” on your way to an incident. As the initial call takers, it is the job of your dispatch center to get all of the relevant information about the call and then provide it to you. Remember that everything relayed to you by dispatch has not yet been confirmed as true, rather it is what is being reported. Evaluate it with skepticism. Consider dispatch information as a good “heads up” for things to look for upon your arrival on scene and not what you will actually find. For instance, dispatch may relay that you should “Be advised, possible weapons.” This may be due to the caller reporting there are weapons involved or it may be from your dispatch center’s prior dealings with the persons involved or perhaps a dispatcher performed an indices check that indicated the person is known to have weapons. In any event, dispatch-provided information alone may not be enough to articulate the need to escalate your response to an incident. Treat dispatch center information as reasonable suspicion and then act upon your own probable cause.
Treat Everyone with Respect
We all know to treat victims and witnesses with respect, but how about the suspect? Do you treat everyone the way you would like to have a family member or you treated? Do you take the time to explain things to the suspect, such as your name and what the investigation is regarding, or do you start right in with direct questions? Do you give people the benefit of the doubt until they give you a reason not to do so?
Not only does showing mutual respect build rapport (which is the first step in the interview process), it also de-escalates a confrontation back into a conversation. Allow people to voluntarily comply with requests before barking out orders. Remember: Ask, tell, make. Detective D.A. “Jelly” Brice was a famed police gunfighter during the 1930s. He was so well known for winning gun battles, sometimes outnumbered more than two to one, that he was recruited into the fledgling FBI by Director J. Edgar Hoover so that he might teach the new special agents who were accountants and auditors to be gunfighters. When asked what made him successful, D.A. Brice credited his mindset: “Approach every man with a smile on your lips and malice in your heart.” In other words, be courteous and respectful but have a plan and the resolve to win a violent confrontation if necessary.
For years, my agency has taught officers to continually verbalize commands as a part of firearms training. “Sir/Ma’am, put the weapon down. Sir/Ma’am, do it now!” In so doing, you are not only telling the suspect what you want them to do, but you are also demonstrating that you perceived a weapon and you were not acting out of hate or anger toward the suspect should you choose to use deadly force. Any witness to the incident will state that you were asking for compliance rather than cursing and swearing at the suspect immediately before the use of deadly force.
Arrest Is A Process
Our current emergency management director was already an investigator with several years of experience when I joined my first department. He gave me the benefit of his wisdom and some simple advice that has served me well for almost three decades. He said to, “Always remember that an arrest is a process, not a punishment.” The who, what, where and when are not what is important. What is important is that the process is carried out as safely and efficiently as possible.
Never put yourself in a position where you have to rush to make an arrest. If you can’t safely make the arrest alone, call for back up. If it’s better to let things de-escalate for now and make the arrest later then wait and get a warrant. If you can contact the person and have them turn themselves in, then do so and make an arrest by appointment rather than by surprise on their doorstep.
An arrest is a stressful situation and stress causes people to become unpredictable. By doing all that you can to minimize the stress you automatically de-escalate the situation.
It is important for officers to be mindful of their actions and articulate what they did and for what reasons when asked about de-escalation response during an incident. By visualizing scenarios and appropriate responses ahead of time, you can increase your chances of effectively de-escalating most incidents. Maintain your objectivity. Keep an open mind and give others the benefit of the doubt. Remember that attempting to de-escalate does not mean you can relax or let your guard down. Don’t be in a hurry to make an arrest and above all, never underestimate the value of courtesy and respect.