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Law Enforcement De-escalation Techniques: who benefits?

In Law Enforcement, Updates by Beth


According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, the word de-escalate is a verb meaning: to decrease in extent, volume, or scope. The term is frequently used in the law enforcement and mental health profession as a means to defuse a situation with a mentally ill individual.


In most cases, police officers arrive to an incident scene without full knowledge of the situation at hand. They are responsible to  determine the specifics in a quick-thinking manner. A number of police calls are in response to a person who has a mental health diagnosis along with a substance use disorder.  According to SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), 70% of offenders have substance use disorder while 17-34% have mental health diagnoses. These numbers are growing significantly, and first responders and mental health clinicians must determine the best course of action when they are dealing with a person in crisis with one or both of these disorders. Individuals who have experienced both of these disorders are known as being dually diagnosed or have co-occurring disorder. While studies are not well known there is an anecdotal belief that the number of offenders with co-occurring disorder account for a greater number than previously believed. One of the difficulties in managing these individuals is that many fluctuate between substance use and mental health issues or it could be both of the disorders is affecting them at the time of crisis’. The professional groups of law enforcement as well as the mental health community have learned through numerous experiences that the need for consistency in their response must be attained and to that end, police departments across the United States have adopted Crisis Incident Teams (CIT) to address the need for multidisciplinary teams that consist of a specially trained police officers along with partnerships with mental health clinicians and community resources. There is a national model and 40-hour training that is known as the Memphis Model which was implemented in 1987.

According to information from Memphis Model, there are more than 2700 police departments throughout the United States that have trained and implemented a CIT program. The benefits are far reaching by not only helping individuals who are in crisis but also reduces police liability and injury. When an officer applies de-escalation skills appropriately, the probability that he or she will effectively intervene in a crisis is increased and the need for using physical force is minimized.

Upon arrival to the scene, police officers must initiate simple and direct guidelines for their personal safety as well as that of the person in crisis.

Communication is key when initiating the attempts to de-escalate the person involved. Some of the techniques that are taught in the 40-hour training.

  • Develop a plan – this is referred to as strategic visualization, that is making a plan before you are in the active situation to reduce the stress and perhaps the potential violence that an officer may encounter.
  • Give the person undivided attention – use both verbal and non-verbal communication by looking directly and only at the person in crisis. Speak calmly and ensure that you reinforce that it is just the two of you in the situation. Listening is really important, and your body language will reassure the person.
  • Be nonjudgmental – always tune into the nonverbal communication. It can provide much more than words. Make sure that body language and tone are nonjudgmental, this will go far to assist in calming the individual.
  • Focus on the person’s feelings, not just the facts – ask them how they are feeling, this will make them feel like you want to help them.
  • Allow silence – by allowing the person to gather their thoughts, they will feel that you care. Although most people do not feel comfortable with silence, for this purpose it may reassure the individual that they can take time to answer. If they appear confused, it would be appropriate to ask a question again.
  • Use restatement to clarify messages – the need to be patient and calm including repeating messages are an important part of de-escalating a situation.

By utilizing these tools and perhaps more during an incident will benefit the law enforcement officer and the individual in crisis.

De-escalation skills training is a law enforcement training experience designed to equip police officers with the ability to effectively communicate and while having active listening skills. It is the goal of this training to adopt the learned techniques to daily response in the community. Keeping in mind that since no two situations are alike, there is no blueprint for response, but the learned skills will assist the police officer greatly during the incident.


For more information on law enforcement de-escalation skills training, visit our course page in order to get a free preview of our intense virtual training.