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De-escalation: 3 factors that affect success

The ability to avoid turning a professional situation into a personal one goes a long way

At the 2016 ILEETA conference, law enforcement instructor Mark Sawa covered some of the factors that affect an officer’s ability to diffuse a situation and offered tips for success.

Three of the main factors that affect an officer’s ability to de-escalate through their verbal skills and body language are: confidence, experience, and fatigue. Let’s explore each of these in detail.

1. Confidence

Obviously, the level of confidence you have in your ability to take a volatile situation and bring it to a peaceful conclusion will be reflected in your actions and words. An officer’s confidence in themselves is also reflected in their ability to accept the verbal abuse that may be heaped on them by a suspect during a situation. Confident officers are less prone to having their buttons pushed than those who lack confidence. The ability to avoid turning a professional situation into a personal one goes a long way in successfully dealing with it.

2. Experience

Experience is the best teacher and can result in positive future outcomes. Sawa pointed out that your mouth, more than any other tool you have, can get you in or out of trouble. Apply what you’ve learned in your prior positive experiences in talking or otherwise interacting with suspects to future interactions.

3. Time

Time is one of the overriding factors in de-escalation and diffusion. In some situations, there will be little time to attempt these tactics because of the choices of the subject. Sawa advises officers to strongly consider how much time is allowed in the situation to engage in dialogue.

Combative Energy

One of the main points Sawa stressed was the concept of Combative Energy. The idea is that in a confrontation, all parties add or subtract from the emotional responses that can heighten or lessen the stressors. Officers need to understand that every word, action, and movement adds or subtracts from the energy. In our role as cops, we need to bear in mind that it is our job to maintain, bring or restore the peace in any given situation.

Officers can best avoid adding to the Combative Energy in a number of ways. Lowering your voice, slowing down both your speech and your movements, and avoiding sarcastic/disrespectful tones and comments are a few of the actions officers can employ.

Other actions like not moving into or even creating more personal space for subjects will lower their stress level and thus their Combative Energy. Sawa also suggests actively listening to the subject so that they feel you are taking them seriously and actually hearing what they are trying to tell you.

Some of the components of active listening are:

  • Using a pause, which gives the subject and the officer time to think.
  • Verbally identifying the emotion(s) that you see the subject displaying to demonstrate empathy.
  • Repeating back in your own words what you have heard from the suspect in order to clarify understanding and ensure proper communication.
  • Using words and phrases like “uh huh,” “go ahead,” and “yes” to demonstrate you are listening to the suspect and want to hear more.

Sawa’s class and many others are taught throughout the U.S. for law enforcement through the VALOR Project. The training is free for cops. Since most departments are always looking for good quality training at a budget price, consider contacting the Bureau of Justice Assistance that oversees the VALOR Project at for more information and class listings.

In February 2014, Duane Wolfe retired from his career as a Minnesota Peace Officer after more than 25 years of service (beginning in 1988). During his career, he served as a patrolman, sergeant, S.R.T., use of force and firearms instructor. He was a full-time law enforcement instructor at Alexandria Technical & Community College in Alexandria, Minnesota for 28 years. Duane has a Bachelor of Science Degree in Criminal Justice from Bemidji State University and a Masters Degree in Education from Southwest State University.