Police de-escalation training and techniques

Police de-escalation training and techniques help resolve interactions between your officers and the community peacefully. Learn how you can better prepare your officers.

November 9, 2021

Article highlights

Following the number of high-profile officer-involved shootings and deaths, there have been increased calls by cities and citizens for a change in the way police respond to situations, like domestic calls, suspects armed with knives, or people having a mental health crisis.

In the past, officers have taken an aggressive approach to ending those incidents—usually involving the use of force and sometimes firearms. This can result in injury or death to the subject or the officer.

Now police are being asked to use de-escalation techniques as a way to bring standoffs to a peaceful end without anyone getting hurt or the need for any kind of violence. While it's still a controversial topic within police circles, a large number of departments have begun incorporating police de-escalation training and seeing a major improvement in the number of use-of-force incidents, complaints against officers, and injuries and deaths.

In this article, we'll look at what police de-escalation is, what are the benefits and elements of it, and an explanation of what's involved in police de-escalation training.

What is police de-escalation?

De-escalation is a process designed to prevent conflict escalation and, ideally, resolve conflicts peacefully. Some subjects may be committed to escalating the conflict, so specific measures must be taken to avoid that. Ultimately, de-escalation should reduce a person's agitation and the potential for violence.

According to a Foster City, California police de-escalation training presentation, de-escalation is "intended to escape escalations of conflict" and "reduce conflict before it develops."

It's important to remember that de-escalation is a philosophy, not a process. However, there are certain de-escalation techniques that can help. De-escalation training teaches police officers to slow things down, create space, ask open-ended questions, build a rapport with subjects, and hold off reaching for their guns.

Benefits

One of the biggest benefits of police de-escalation is reducing the need for use of force by police officers, as well as officer-involved shootings. It also greatly reduces the likelihood that officers will be hurt during a confrontation.

According to a 2020 report by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), one form of de-escalation training run by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) reduced the use-of-force incidents for the Louisville Metro Police Department.

It also showed that officers who completed eight hours of police de-escalation training received 26% fewer citizen complaints. There were also 28% fewer use-of-force incidents, and 36% fewer officer injuries. 

Another 2020 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) showed that procedural justice training (which includes de-escalation training) saw a 10% reduction in complaints filed against officers.

Based on the different cities implementing police de-escalation training, there is a significant reduction in use-of-force complaints, officer-involved shootings, and injuries to police officers or citizens. These results can go a long way to improving community relations, but can also reduce the risk of lawsuits, liability claims, and insurance payouts.

PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler told The Washington Post, “When we first began this whole journey, the conventional wisdom was: ‘Cops have to make split-second decisions — you’re going to get officers hurt.’ Now here we are in 2020 and you have a study that says not only was there a decline in use of force and citizen injury, but the biggest decline is in officer injuries.”

Key elements

The point of police de-escalation training is to teach officers to favor a guardian mindset over a warrior mindset, shifting police philosophy to protector instead of fighter. The training teaches officers to rely on communication and negotiation tactics over physical force as a way to convince a subject to avoid physical violence or self-harm. Here are a few elements of de-escalation that are taught in departments all over the U.S.

Active/Empathetic listening

Active listening means listening attentively to another person, withholding judgment, and paying close attention to what they're saying. There are also nonverbal and verbal components to active listening that serve as signals to the other person that you're listening. We'll discuss those shortly.

In essence, active listening means you're paying attention to what the other person is saying and not thinking about what you're going to say in response. Don't argue or interrupt, or convince them that they're wrong. Very often, angry people only want to feel listened to and be taken seriously.

Nonverbal communication

Nonverbal communication is everything other than the words we speak – gestures, facial expressions, body language, as well as the tone of voice, volume, and inflections. Nonverbal communication influences the content of how, and how well, we communicate.

Nonverbal communication includes body language and body movement. Are you standing in a guarded position, hand hovering over your firearm? Or do you appear more relaxed with your hands at your side? Are you closing in aggressively on a subject, or are you backing away and keeping a safe distance between you and the subject?

(Keeping a safe distance is one of the techniques they teach in de-escalation training so officers still have time to react if a subject lunges with a knife or a fist.)

Your nonverbal communication also shows you're engaging in active listening because you're making eye contact, you're nodding and leaning forward a little, you're sitting or standing still, and you're letting the other person speak without interrupting or rushing to fill gaps in the conversation.

Verbal communication

Verbal communication is everything we say, but not how we say it. That is, tone of voice, volume, timbre, and so on are all nonverbal elements, but the words you use and what you say, are verbal communication elements.

Verbal communication during de-escalation includes paraphrasing what a subject is saying. You're repeating what they said, but you're changing up the wording slightly. A subject who says, "No one listens to me!" you could paraphrase and say, "It must be hard to feel like no one is listening to you." This builds trust and rapport between you and the subject, allows for clarification, and forces them to listen as well.

It also means reflecting back what they seem to be feeling, such as saying, "It feels like you're very angry right now." This shows that you're actually observing their own nonverbal communications.

You can also ask open-ended questions rather than yes-or-no questions. "How did you feel about that?" or "What happened next?"

And of course, use non-threatening words and statements. Rather than telling a subject to calm down or you'll arrest them, you can say things like, "I understand you're angry. I just want to listen to you and give you some options."

Police de-escalation techniques

Other police de-escalation techniques taught in training include:

  • Empathizing: Meeting them where they are, not expressing any judgment about their situation.
  • Make a connection: Find something you have in common, like their tattoos, vehicle, favorite sports team, or their clothing.
  • Isolate them from others to avoid a crowd, distract from the situation, and de-escalate.
  • Motivate them: Encourage them and show appreciation for small steps. 
  • Provide helpful choices, instead of threatening them with arrest.

Police de-escalation training

How it’s changed over time

Law enforcement use-of-force policies and training have focused mainly on officer safety, where officers have been allowed to use a level of force that an officer "reasonably believes necessary."

De-escalation has traditionally been part of police training, but the average recruit only receives eight hours of police de-escalation training, compared to 58 hours of firearms training and 49 hours of defensive tactical training.

In early 2016, PERF published a report detailing 30 guiding principles on the use of force. The principles teach officers to de-escalate tense situations that involve unarmed people, and it looks like it's paying off.

The San Francisco police department created a police de-escalation training program that saw a 24% decrease in the use of force in 2019 compared with 2018. And before that, there was a 35% decline from 2015 - 2018. And in 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a law that required police de-escalation training, something the Berkeley and San Diego police departments had already implemented.

What police de-escalation training should include

While online training can save time and money, police de-escalation training should be taught in-person, in real-world hands-on training sessions. Of course, you can supplement your in-person training with additional reading and videos on de-escalation, which can be made available on the PowerDMS training management software.

That's where officers can learn to recognize the need for de-escalation by spotting signs of an agitated subject:

  • Raised or high-pitched voice
  • Rapid speech
  • Fidgeting and shaking
  • Balled fists or an aggressive posture
  • Erratic movements and wild gesturing
  • Pacing

Of course, your department should have a de-escalation policy that states when an officer should and should not attempt to de-escalate a situation. For example, most police departments will not attempt to de-escalate when a subject has a gun of any kind. But it should also have a decision tree that lets officers decide when they should de-escalate a situation rather than use force as the first resort.

With the right training management software, you should also be able to unify your training to your de-escalation policy, ensuring that everyone is receiving the same information. You can often find third-party content on police de-escalation techniques and ask another city to share their own policy with you on the matter.

Of course, once your officers have reviewed the new police and completed the training, you'll want to capture and track all their signatures on the matter, just like you do with your other policies and training modules.

You'll also want to provide testing for comprehension, to make sure they understand everything being asked of them.

And you'll want to provide online training content so they can refresh their knowledge, learn new techniques, or even watch body cam videos from other departments to see their own police de-escalation techniques in action.

De-escalation starts with the officer

A successful de-escalation starts with your officers and their willingness to follow this philosophy and its techniques. That means they should have high self-awareness of their own emotional state and listening skills. An officer's emotional state will affect their interaction with others. Being able to show a calm, relaxed face and body language will go a long way in defusing a tense situation.

They should also practice regular self-care. A healthy lifestyle impacts a person's mental health, emotional state, and personal confidence. Your officers should already be practicing self-care and living healthy, as it will only help their de-escalation technique. 

Final thoughts

De-escalation is still a relatively new philosophy in law enforcement circles. Many officers are still arguing the "guardian versus warrior" model, but societal pressures and a lack of trust from local communities are pushing more departments into adopting the de-escalation mindset.

The goal is to defuse a situation and get subjects to make smart choices because they recognize that their incidents can end in a way other than being shot or taking the life of an officer. By writing your own department policy, training on the different techniques we've discussed, and continuing to promote this philosophy, your department could also see a dramatic reduction in use-of-force incidents, police complaints, and even lawsuits and insurance claims.

You can manage your police policy and training program with PowerDMS software. Visit our website to learn more about implementing your own online police training program, including de-escalation training.

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