“De-escalation” has become a real buzzword in the law enforcement industry. A confluence of forces have thrust our ability to talk to people into the forefront of modern policing. As tempting as it is to critique these forces, I think we have to accept that the community, the courts, and our departments now expect a whole lot from us with regard to our ability to talk to people. Specifically, agitated people, in a rapidly changing environment, with lots of opportunity for Monday morning quarterbacking.
There is nothing new in the idea of trying to calm people down so that we don’t have to use force. Much of the older generation learned “Verbal Judo” in the police academy, a full-throated endorsement of using words to settle people down. The latest version of Verbal Judo is now embedded in Crisis Intervention Training (CIT), tactical training, and management training at all levels.
Our police chiefs, sheriffs, and public information officers leap at any opportunity to drop the de-escalation buzzword in their public comments. All of this, in response to the communities perception that if we jam de-escalation training down every cop’s throat, people won’t be shot and killed anymore.
Unfortunately, the press has perpetuated the myth that more “sensitivity” training for officers with regard to our interactions with the mentally ill, will translate into less OIS’s. Training is ideal for those who are ready to learn, and who take some kind of interest in the topic they’re learning about. In reality, training is but a small part of what is required to reduce the number of mentally ill subjects being killed in the country.
I’d like to take a moment to strip away all the fluff and garbage surrounding the typical de-escalation training, and give you five things to think about on the topic of calming people down. Some of these ideas require introspection. They all lead to practical, in the field options for officers wanting to settle someone down.
(1) Being Authentic
Presented with a caricature or robotic police officer, people in crisis will inevitably escalate. In this sense, agitated subjects are reaching out for a real human connection. That connection will offer up keys to the castle for the de-escalator. The officer’s task then, is to respond to the escalated person, not as a cop trying to be ‘human,’ but as a human speaking with another human, keeping in mind his/her police duties. This can be very uncomfortable, especially for new officers.
(2) Responding versus Reacting
Reacting is the first thing that comes to your lips. Responding is giving it a second, letting this first impulse pass, and speaking tactically. Everything that comes out of your mouth should serve the singular purpose of calming this person down. Throw what you want to say out the window.
(3) Writing the Biography
As an advanced crisis de-escalator, you will become the personal biographer of the person you’re trying to settle down. You will be curious about what’s going on from their perspective. You’ll immerse yourself - if only for two minutes - in the world of the person in crisis, becoming familiar with how they see the situation. When writing the biography, officers should be asking questions, rather than making statements or providing commentary.
(4) Holding the Environment
In the midst of everything, the effective crisis de-escalator exudes a sense of comfort with taking control of the situation. This is a skill that largely comes with direct experience in the field. It’s not about being “controlling” as much as it is about knowing that you are in charge. When you know you’re in charge, and buck stops with you, your agitated subject will be more responsive to your interventions. Importantly, this isn’t something you’ll want to show off. It starts with your internal sense of confidence in being able to manage the call. That confidence will permeate your interaction with the person in crisis.
It’s important to remember that some adults need limits. Many people who feel out of control will respond favorably to the officer who says, “no.” It helps them feel protected. Setting a limit is a tactical decision, again, based on the singular goal of calming the subject down.
(5) Offering Hope
The person in crisis is drowning at sea. You are the Life Preserver being tossed overboard. Why should the agitated person reach out to you? Because you really believe that if they get the help they need, they will be in a much better place in their life.
Recovery is possible for people with schizophrenia, substance abuse, depression and all the other major mental illnesses. You have to believe that. As an advanced de-escalator, you will know about the mental health options for those you are talking to. The more you know about these programs the better.
Embedded into the identity of any law enforcement officer is that of “helper.” We strike our own balance between enforcer and helper; a balance that may change with years on, life experience, and work experience. Stripping away all the external pressure we now feel, the above officer tasks, if taken seriously, will reduce the necessity to use force, increase the communities confidence in us, and - perhaps most importantly - keep us safe.