It’s not a hug-a-thug program.
It’s not begging and pleading.
It’s not cause for delay when immediate action is necessary.
De-escalation is, however, a careful balance of tactics, knowledge, wisdom, communication and experience, said former Department of Criminal Justice Training Instructor Tom Atkin.
Across the nation, those within as well as those outside law enforcement circles are questioning today’s policing tactics. Words like “guardian” and “warrior” have become common vernacular as officials look to solve the growing unrest between officers and citizens.
Seattle, Los Angeles, New York City, Kansas City and San Diego are just a handful of the communities whose attention has turned toward teaching officers de-escalation tactics alongside the use of force continuum. Studying these tactics and employing them on the street in hopes of decreasing use of force is becoming a growing trend.
Response from those who have served for years under policing philosophies such as Broken Windows and crime-reduction strategies like CompStat has been mixed. Many officers argue that de-escalation leads to hesitation and officers getting injured or killed. Others have noticed the necessity for change in the current climate.
Kentucky is no different, Atkin said. De-escalation skills have been extensively woven into DOCJT training for both Basic Training Academy recruits as well as in-service students to stay ahead of this national trend.
Understanding the processes involved with de-escalation and how it works may be key to keeping your Glock in its holster, when it’s appropriate.
“It’s not about winning an argument,” Atkin said. “It’s not about debating, and it’s not about trying to convert somebody to your way of thinking. It is not about holding court on the side of the road.”
De-escalation is as much about preventing an encounter from escalating toward use of force as it is about mitigating an out-of-control scenario. Below is a suggested template for success when met with a person who is not resistant.
– Give two options
• One positive (compliance)
• One negative (non-compliance)
– Give a second chance
– Confirm non-compliance
• Is there anything I can say or do to get you to cooperate with me?
• Are you saying that you will not cooperate with me, even if it means being arrested?
• Even if you do not agree with it, you do understand that the law requires you to cooperate, don’t you?
— Courtesy of former DOCJT Instructor Tom Atkin
Rule No. 1
Perhaps the most important part of de-escalation is that this tactic is NOT appropriate when faced with an immediate, physical threat, Atkin said. When someone is threatening your safety, it’s time to act, not talk. But if a deep breath, a smile and an understanding tone can bring an unruly suspect back into compliance, taking note of your actions and how they may affect the situation can possibly prevent a situation from spiraling out of control.
University of California, Los Angeles life sciences and psychology Professor Dr. Albert Mehrabian conducted a number of studies more than four decades ago that have formed a foundation for how we understand communication today. In his research, Mehrabian concluded that only seven percent of any message is conveyed through the words spoken. The remaining 93 percent are non-verbal communications — 38 percent represents vocal elements such as tone, while the remaining 55 percent is comprised of facial expressions, posture, gestures and more.
Much of our non-verbal communication is subconscious. But as an officer, it’s important to be in tune with how you present yourself on the road. Particularly if adjusting your tone and facial expressions can mean the difference in a calm encounter and filing a use of force report.
“I define de-escalation as wise decisions made to gain compliance with the least amount of intrusion on personal rights when sufficient, reasonable attempts have been made to gain compliance before force is applied,” Atkin said.
One way to maintain your composure and lead to de-escalating a situation when things get heated is to know your triggers, Atkin said. As part of the Basic Training class, Atkin asks officers to consider words or phrases someone may say that could make a civil encounter turn ugly. Comments like, “I pay your salary,” or derogatory names and labels may be uncomfortable. But knowing how you will respond when someone becomes verbally offensive can help you counteract those emotions with a calm and professional demeanor, Atkin said.
“This also includes the avoidance of unnecessary escalation,” he said. “One big question I tell officers to ask themselves is, ‘Is this worth it?’ Is what this could turn into worth it? I encourage them to use officer discretion — which is a big part of de-escalation. … But the goal there is to tell them that being forewarned is being forearmed. They need to know how to control themselves first before they can control other people.”
Keys to Success Against Verbal Resistance
• Request, don’t command
• Listen, don’t wait to talk
• Find common ground
• Deflect verbal abuse
• Provide options
• Confirm non-compliance
• Paraphrase before acting or disengaging
Choose Your Battles
On a rainy afternoon at the end of a long shift full of disrespectful people, lazy co-workers and dreary working conditions, you stop a driver for running a red light. You approach the vehicle and the driver is visibly angered by the stop. While he complains about you making him late to his next appointment, you stand in the rain getting soaked, ultimately listening to him list the reasons why you should have stopped the other drivers who were disobeying the law and asking why you chose to single him out.
You have three choices in this given scenario, Atkin says. Act, disengage or get help and return.
“If you meet verbal abuse, if there is any kind of physical threat, act,” Atkin said. “If they have committed a crime in the process that requires action, take action. If it is worth it and you have gone through the basic process of the meet and greet, explaining why you stopped them, asking for cooperation and listening, explain why you need their cooperation and then give them options. You’re not giving them a list to choose from, but give them one positive and one negative choice. For example, ‘You need to comply with me or this is what the law says will happen.’
“Give them the options and let them choose,” Atkin continued. “If they choose not to comply, that’s where you can confirm with them by saying something like, ‘What you’re telling me is that you would rather risk being cited or arrested than showing me your driver’s license?’ Then, even if you have confirmed non-compliance, you have to choose — do I act or disengage; which leads me back to the question, ‘Is it worth it?’
When giving the suspect options, remember to pay attention to your hand gestures, the tone and words you choose, Atkin said. A different response is often garnered, for example, by, “Can you work with me?” than with a pointed finger in their face asking, “Do you want to go to jail?”
“Having your hand on your weapon, how you hold your flashlight — these aren’t ‘always’ or ‘never’ things, but anything you do can have some kind of impact or effect on what (the bad guy) does,” Atkin said. “Sometimes that’s desirable, sometimes it’s not. You can create a worse situation.”
The outcome of these scenarios often comes with the officer’s own self-confidence, however, Atkin said.
“You don’t want to extend your hands into the open space or get too close,” he continued. “Tactics are all part of it. One big point is that I firmly believe an officer’s predisposition or inclination to attempt these de-escalation skills is directly related to his or her level of confidence in how they will handle the situation if it goes south. If they lack confidence, fear can control when we have a tendency to respond more aggressively.”
In class, Atkin goes into extensive detail about the three types of people — those who are cooperative, those who are challenging and those who are manipulative. There is roughly 10 percent of the population that, for one reason or another, cannot be de-escalated, Atkin said — an important fact to keep in mind. But the bottom line Atkin encourages officers to consider is, what is your objective?
“What are you trying to accomplish?” Atkin asked. “Are you trying to coerce cooperation or obtain consent voluntarily? Are you here to force respect or gain compliance?”
Maintaining a calm and professional decorum also is important if, as the encounter continues, you realize you need more from the suspect. For example, if that same driver on that traffic stop is actually angry you stopped him because he has a glove box full of drugs, getting consent to search the vehicle is a lot easier if you have not been combative or derogatory toward the driver, regardless of his actions toward you, Atkin said.
“How many people do you think are going to be willing to negotiate with you after you shoot at them?” Atkin said. “You need to use a lot of ‘sir,’ ‘ma’am’ and ‘please.’ My point is, you never know where this is going to go. If you predetermine and act accordingly, you may have some problems.”
De-escalation isn’t just about bringing a situation down, Atkin said. It also can be about keeping a situation from escalating into something more. He urges officers not to be clever, but instead be careful about their decisions. And if ultimately you have to act, remember that once you have gained compliance, the fight is over.
“Even if you had to fight, it’s over and there is no need to mistreat them or abuse them, discipline them or punish them,” Atkin said. “That’s not what this is about. Pick them up and dust them off. Hey, this is business. You’re right back to conversational tones. If you don’t do that, it will cause problems later. But we’re professional the whole time. This isn’t personal. None of it should be — not for you.”
Positive or Negative? Does Word Choice or Tone Matter Most?
The following list of phrases may be some you have commonly used. But how does tone and body language affect your word choice? Consider each of these statements when applied to the photos shown. How does the way you hear the phrase in your mind change depending on which photo you’re comparing?
- Excuse me, may I talk to you?
- Calm down.
- What can I do to help?
- What’s your problem?
- Can you work with me?
- You look like a reasonable person.
- You people.
- What’s the matter?
- Would you assist me?
- How may I help?
- Come/get over here.
- I’m not going to tell you again.
- For your safety and mine.
- Did you hear what I said?
- Sit down.
- Shut up and let me talk.
- Would you please?
- It’s my turn to talk.
- Do you want to go to jail?
- What do you want me to do about it?
Your success with these de-escalation tactics ultimately depends on the cooperation of the person you encounter. Understand that no matter what you do, what THEY do ultimately drives the result. Treat people the way you would expect to be treated, given the circumstances.
— Former DOCJT Instructor Tom Atkin
This deputy’s body language infers that he is confrontational, leaning forward and pointing for the subject to follow his directions. What tone do you expect, given the deputy’s facial expression, would come across in his word choice?
This deputy’s open hands exhibit an appeal to the subject. Imagine him saying “Can you work with me?” His body language suggests that he is open to communication and willing to help.
The deputy’s arms are crossed and he is leaned back, unready to respond. His disgusted attitude is written all over his face. How does his demeanor affect a subject’s response to the question, “What do you want me to do about it?” versus the stance and expression of the deputy directly below, given the same question?
Standing in the interview position, this deputy exhibits a pleasant expression and a readiness to help. Even if he issues commands such as, “Sit down,” in this stance, a subject is more inclined to receive the message in a firm, yet respectful, manner.
If this deputy asked a suspect, “Do you want to go to jail?” what can you infer about his tone and attitude based on his body language? The deputy’s facial expressions indicate he is annoyed and fed up with this discussion. Could the same question be interpreted in a positive, helpful manner if asked with a more concerned appearance?
This deputy is exercising a calming approach with his hands faced palms down and an expression that indicates concern. Even if he says, “I’m not going to tell you again,” in a calm and careful tone, his intent does not come across as combative or instigating.