Written by Michelle Henderson – December 11, 2020

Training Officers on a Program of De-Escalation Strategies and Tactics Designed to Defuse Tense Encounters

The content of police training and the training academy culture should reflect the core values, attributes, and skills that the agency wants its personnel to exhibit in their work in the community. Chief executives or their designees should audit training classes to determine whether training is up to date and reflects the agency’s mission and values. This values-based training culture must extend to the agency’s field training and in-service training programs as well.

Agencies should train their officers on the principles of using distance, cover, and time when approaching and managing certain critical incidents. In many situations, a better outcome can result if officers can buy more time to assess the situation and their options, bring additional resources to the scene, and develop a plan for resolving the incident without the use of force or only with force that is necessary to mitigate the threat.

Agencies should train their officers on a comprehensive program of de-escalation strategies and tactics designed to defuse tense encounters. De-escalation can be used in a range of situations, especially when confronting subjects who are combative and/or suffering a crisis because of mental illness, substance abuse, developmental disabilities, or other conditions that can cause them to behave erratically and dangerously. De-escalation strategies should be based on the following key principles:

  • Effective communication is enough to resolve many situations; communications should be the first option, and officers should maintain communication throughout any encounter. In difficult situations, communications often are more effective when they begin at a “low level,” e.g., officers speaking calmly and in a normal tone of voice, and asking questions rather than issuing orders.
  • Whenever possible, officers should be trained to use distance and cover to “slow the situation down” and create more time for them to continue communicating and developing options.
  • If an encounter requires a use of force, officers should start at only the level of force that is necessary to mitigate the threat. Officers should not unnecessarily escalate a situation themselves.
  • As the situation and threats change, officers should re-evaluate them and respond proportionally; in some cases, this will mean deploying a higher force option, in others a lower option, depending on the circumstances.

De-escalation starts with effective communications.

To effectively carry out the agency’s de-escalation strategies, all officers should receive rigorous and ongoing training on communications skills. Officers should be trained to effectively communicate in a range of situations, including everyday interactions while on duty, public speaking and meeting facilitation, interacting with victims and witnesses, handling critical incidents, and dealing with people with mental health and/or substance abuse problems. All officers should also receive training on basic negotiations techniques.

When law enforcement agencies teach use of force, they teach officers to articulate, to ensure what they’ve done was legally permissible and reasonable. While the agency emphasizes the legally permissible part, they must also focus on the reasonableness.  Since an officer cannot train for every eventuality, the instructor needs to look at how they can better integrate multiple scenarios and outcomes into the training of an officer. When conducting scenario-based training, instructors should allow for more scenarios where officers can de-escalate situations. Once they’ve identified the scenario is not a firearm situation and perhaps may involve a mental health issue, the instructor needs to present the officer with options to de-escalate the situation with less force, while still keeping the officer safe. That way the instructor is giving the officer options and not just preparing or training worst-case scenarios.

Agencies should provide in-service training on critical decision-making, de-escalation, and use of force to teams of officers at the same time. When officers who work together on a daily basis train together, coordination and consistency in tactics increase, and the likelihood of undesirable outcomes during critical incidents decreases. Recognizing that this approach may increase costs and disrupt scheduling, agencies should consider alternative arrangements to traditional, day-long in-service training classes—for example, by bringing in a team of officers for a few hours of training several times a year. If training as teams is not feasible, agencies should at least ensure standardization in their policies and training so that all officers are receiving the same information.

If critical thinking process works for specialized tactical units, why can’t it be used by patrol officers as well? If patrol officers had a structured, easy-to-use decision-making process to follow, and could combine that with tactical concepts such as distance, cover, and time, they could more effectively and safely resolve many types of critical incidents.

In both recruit and in-service programs, agencies should provide use of force training that utilizes realistic and challenging scenarios that officers are likely to encounter in the field. Scenarios should be based on real-life situations and utilize encounters that officers in the agency have recently faced. Scenarios should go beyond the traditional “shoot-don’t shoot” decision-making, and instead provide for a variety of possible outcomes, including some in which communication, de-escalation, and use of less-lethal options are most appropriate. Scenario-based training focused on decision-making should be integrated with officers’ regular requalification on their firearms and less-lethal equipment.

Mental health

Strategies for dealing with people experiencing mental health crises should be woven into the tactical training that all officers receive, with a strong emphasis on communications, de-escalation techniques, maintaining cover and distance, and allowing for the time needed to resolve the incident safely for everyone. Officers who respond to scenes involving people experiencing mental health crises should be directed to call for assistance from specially trained officers and/or supervisors (e.g., CIT-trained) if possible. Officers should be trained to work as a team, and not as individual actors, when responding to tense situations involving persons with mental illness. Much like active-shooter situations, where working as a team is more effective than responding as individuals, mental health encounters are resolved more effectively when officers coordinate their communications, positioning, and tactics.

Where resources exist, agencies should partner with their local mental health service community to assist with training, policy development, proactively working with people with mental illness, and responding to critical incidents. Mental health street outreach and crisis response teams can provide valuable support to the police response to these incidents and assist with de-escalation strategies directed at persons experiencing mental health crises.

Patrol officers should be given access to, and regular training in, an appropriate range of less-lethal weapons and equipment to support their critical decision making and de-escalation efforts. Personnel specially trained in mental health issues should be issued and trained in the full range of less-lethal options offered by the agency.

To learn more about de-escalation strategies and scenarios, visit this page.