Deescalation: Completely Misunderstood, Employed & Trained

By Jim Glennon  |   Aug 3, 2020

Editor’s note: We continue to receive heavy feedback on this article and hear it referenced often in national discussions regarding deescalation. In light of its popularity we’re republishing this for those who didn’t see it the first time it ran. Be sure to register for the new “Deescalation, Intervention & Force Mitigation” courses we’re got coming up. Click here for the schedule.

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Over the past few weeks, we’ve heard the term “deescalation training” as a sort of rallying cry from all quarters of the country: grieving families, the media, activists, local and national politicians, and even the President of the United States have enshrined those two words into the national lexicon.

After a video of almost any force event gains an audience of a viral nature, someone—usually someone who knows nothing about police work or dealing with noncompliant people—demands to know why the officer didn’t use deescalation tactics.

The media often picks up on the question and invites some self-described specialist to sit down and give an opinion about what the officer could have said or done to avoid using force. The observation (I’m going to use some psychological terminology here) is usually meandering, blathering mumbo jumbo that infers a dangerous and misleading misnomer, which is this: anyone can be deescalated if an officer chooses to utilize a deescalation tactic.

What’s worse is the next conclusion: if the person wasn’t deescalated, then the officer in question simply and purposely chose not to utilize a well-established and proven deescalation tactic.

It is therefore inferred that the failure to employ deescalation tactics was a callous choice—a heartless decision which resulted in preventable injury or, worse, death.

All the officer had to do was pull from his quiver the deescalation arrow and launch it. The situation would have calmed! The stress would have dissipated. All would have been at peace. No one would have been injured.

But he chose not to.

And all of that is complete nonsense.

But the blame is placed, the myth flourishes, and expectations grow.

Critical thinking is ignored.

And in police agencies, too often, as far as the higher-ups are concerned, proof is all that matters. Just prove that you’ve attended some sort of deescalation training. Check the box in case someone investigates us. Clear the agency of liability and culpability.

Simple Yet Complex

I’ve been teaching “deescalation” for over 25 years. Sometimes when we get a request for a class, the request comes with hourly figures attached.

“We only need three hours of deescalation training.”

“We need eight hours of deescalation training.”

Rarely does someone ask for specifics about what will actually be taught.

About a year ago, a training director (nice guy) asked me if I was going to pass out “little plastic cards with deescalation words and phrases on them.”

Slightly confused—not by what he meant, but rather what he erroneously and apparently believed—I responded:

“What do you mean?”

“You know, a card with deescalation words that the officers can pull out and read to someone they are having trouble with during a stressful encounter?”

At that moment I envisioned a hypnotist using trigger words that had been implanted into the mind of a test subject. Words that make the subject bark like a dog or cluck like a chicken.

“Do you really think that such words exist?” I asked him.

“Well, what kind of deescalation are you going to teach them then?”

“An understanding of human behavior, the emotional component of conduct, verbal and nonverbal communication skills, reading people, interaction stages, the need to control the self, patience, and solid tactics when engaged with others. I’m going to teach all of that.”

“Oh, so no card then huh?” (He didn’t really say that part).

The most serious misconception about deescalation is that it is merely the application of magic words or mystical phrases; that it’s a simple tool which can be easily utilized by any officer willing to employ it.

And again, that’s nonsense.

Deescalation is a goal! It is a desired end. A preferred result.

It is not a series of words or an algorithmic formula which simply needs to be plugged into any irrational interaction.

I was trained as a hostage negotiator. I was trained in (and eventually taught) interviewing and interrogation. In both of these disciplines you do learn certain things, and some systems do try to teach steps, but those are often impractical and counterproductive in the real world.

Knowing what to say begins by recognizing who it is you are dealing with and what their needs are in the context of the immediacy.

That may sound like theoretical psychobabble, but it is not. It all comes down to understanding human behavior and true communication skills. Then you work your way from there.

There are no words you absolutely cannotuse. There are no words that you must use. What you must do is develop some level of understanding about the person you are dealing with in the moment. 

There is no one correct way—no true and righteous path—that will get you to your end goal, which is the deescalation of an escalated person.

There are some necessities that must be kept in mind, but it is really dependent on you and your understanding of communication and human behavior. It comes down to your experience at reading people and listening with both the ears and the eyes. It depends on your ability to interpret the needs of the person with whom you are dealing.

Perhaps most importantly, there needs to be a true comprehension of acute stress—the type of stress that irrational people almost always are experiencing in the moment. It’s the type of stress that negatively impacts an officer’s ability to utilize whatever skills he or she has learned.

It doesn’t matter how smart you are, what you know, or how advanced your psychology degree may be; if you cannot control yourself, it will be impossible to control, redirect, and influence others.

Deescalation is a fun course to teach because it makes sense. It’s common sense, it’s relatable, and it works in the real world.

And students recognize that.

Forget the mythical nonsense. Peace officers are in the human behavior business. 

Learn your craft.

Important Training Note:

Calibre Press will soon be releasing a new course titled, “De-Escalation, Intervention & Recognizing Force Mitigation Opportunities.”

You’ll find details on the program here.

If you would like to be notified when the first course is offered, please e-mail: [email protected].

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Jim Glennon
Lt. Jim Glennon (ret.) is the owner and lead instructor for Calibre Press. He is a third-generation LEO, retired from the Lombard, Ill. PD after 29 years of service. Rising to the rank of lieutenant, he commanded both patrol and the Investigations Unit. In 1998, he was selected as the first Commander of Investigations for the newly formed DuPage County Major Crimes (Homicide) Task Force. He has a BA in Psychology, a Masters in Law Enforcement Justice Administration, is the author of the book Arresting Communication: Essential Interaction Skills for Law Enforcement.