Why “Deescalation” is Becoming a Problematic Word

Even law enforcement experts can confuse this very important concept

By Ellis Amdur, MA, NCC, CMHS  |   Aug 30, 2018

Violence is always ugly. A lot of the public believes, however, that if the violence justified, it will look as clean as a John Wayne movie. If it looks disturbing or if someone (other than an officer) is hurt, all too many people assume that police must have done something wrong.

In increasing numbers of cases, particularly when it involves someone who may (also) be suffering from some form of emotional or mental disability, the talismanic phrase is uttered: “The officer should have deescalated him.” I could cite innumerable cases, but this one, from Seattle, exemplifies the problem. (Here are the results of this.)

To sum up, a man stole an ice ax and was brandishing it on the street, ignoring verbal commands. An officer brilliantly put the individual in a G-Wrap hold, tying up his arm and the weapon, and took him to the ground where he was restrained without injury. This officer was written up by his supervisor who complained that he didn’t use deescalation tactics.

We’re All Misusing the Term

So what is deescalation anyway? One well-known use-of-force expert wrote regarding the ‘Ferguson Incident’: “After Officer Wilson and Brown struggled over the control of the pistol and Brown was shot and then fled, Wilson exited his SUV and briefly gave chase. He deescalated by using his officer presence and verbal skills, repeatedly yelling at Brown to stop and “get on the ground.” (Bolding added for emphasis.)

The writer’s mistake, one I have heard by many other experts in this field, as well as spokespersons for police agencies, is a failure to make a distinction between three very different actions: anger, rage, and violence.

Why is this important? Obviously, you have to use the right tool for the job. Trying to establish rapport with a violent person will get you injured or killed; using force on a merely angry person is often excessive and counter-productive.

Beyond that, however, is what happens next—you can do the right thing, but if it is improperly described or inadequately defined, the public will misinterpret what happened.

Let me give you an example. Imagine you are in a trial, a case involving a schizophrenic individual, and you state, “I used verbal deescalation.” The jury, based on their own life experiences, expects to you to have said something like: “Relax. It’s OK. You’ve been having it rough. If I heard voices in my head, I’d be upset too.” But what the jury hears on the tape is, “Throw down that knife! I will shoot you if you step forward!”

You may have used exactly the right tactic—she was five feet away and approaching fast—but any person with common sense won’t view what you said as ‘deescalation.’ Furthermore, any plaintiff attorney will then ask the officer, “So your ‘deescalation’ tactic [said with finger quotes for the jury] is to scream at the poor, confused mentally ill woman and then shoot her when you scare her so much that she no longer knew what to do.”

Contrary to this, you need to be able to state, with complete confidence, “I used verbal control tactics, commanding her to stop. My training demands that, in these specific circumstances, I do NOT use ‘verbal deescalation.’”

Then you explain why.

Different Levels of Aggression Require Different Levels of Response

[Note: Numbers below indicate 1 – 100 scale.]

A. Baseline, calm individual (1 – 20): Simply communicate. Baseline is like a rocket ship on the platform, doors open, so you can tour it and walk around. There might be a lot of potential power in the engine, but all is quiet and safe.

B. Angry Person (20 – 95):The angry person is trying to communicate with you, however unpleasant a way he has chosen. He will escalate as long as he believes he is not ‘getting through’ to you. That’s why angry people yell out: “You aren’t listening to me” or “Shut up and let me finish.” This is where you use deescalation tactics. Anger is like a rocket ship during countdown. Systems are getting activated, doors closed (and outside input has to come on only a few specific channels. Here are a few tactical examples:

  • Correct Distance means talking with a kind of formality, with a ‘just the facts’ approach. It is used with suspicious or paranoid folks
  • Tactical Paraphrasing (AKA ‘active listening’) for those who are argumentative, agitated or upset (this is the heart of crisis negotiation).
  • Pronouncing Rules for those with a rigid personality (on the autistic spectrum).

C. Rage (95 – 99, a transitional state between anger and violence): Even though they may be speaking (or screaming, mumbling or uttering threats), they aren’t trying to communicate with you. Instead, all of their actions, including speech, are used as a means to override whatever still holds them back from violence. You must establish verbal control through commands, and sometimes physical control as well. Your goal is to keep them from further amping themselves up into violence. Rage is like a rocket ship at ignition. Flames are shooting out, but it’s not started lift-off. You can still cut the fuel off, and shut things down.

D. Violence (100): Establish safety. Safety is determined by the circumstances and whom we must protect. This includes escape, misdirection, manipulation, fighting back—whatever is required to protect yourself and those for whom you are responsible. The rocket has achieved liftoff, and one way or another, you’ve got to bring it down.

Remedies for Trainers on Deescalation

Officers will find training on verbal tactics useless if they are given irrelevant information, or suggestions that would be against policy to do. (For example: “Guns frighten individuals with mental illness. Leave yours in your car.”)

1. Deescalation training should never be viewed as moral education. It’s the height of arrogance to assume that officers need moral education from trainers. When you tell people that they are deficient or prejudiced, they become angry and defensive.

2. Law enforcement trainers need to know the context where tactical deescalation strategies should be attempted. They also need to learn when they should not be attempted, because the situation warrants control or forceful intervention, not deescalation. Therefore, any trainer who will recommend or proscribe behavioral interventions to police needs to be educated:

  • Go on ‘ride-alongs’ with officers or deputies, or for the correctional environment, spend time in the jail;
  • Participate in defensive tactics training; and/or
  • Attend a Citizens’ Police Academy.

Remedies For Officers

1. Train your officers in verbal tactics that actually support and enhance public and officer safety. You will get buy-in from officers when what you teach makes officers more powerful, not less.

2. Only use the term deescalation when discussing the calming of an angry person. If the officer expresses commands, it should be defined and referred to as verbal control. These terms must be properly used in documentation and in discussions with the public. A clear distinction between de-escalation and verbal control should always be made.

Conclusion

So much of what a police or corrections officer does and says is misunderstood and politicized by those looking to cast blame and change the subject. Officers owe it to themselves and their public to be careful with their language and the realities of violence. Bottom line: An angry person might be talked down from their heightened state. But an enraged person is another challenge altogether.