Skip to main content
Move the World.
de-escalation

Lead Image © Munshots / Unsplash

In the wake of George Floyd's death and other controversial police use-of-force incidents, national scrutiny over police tactics is increasing, as is pressure on law enforcement officials to find alternatives, like de-escalation techniques.

But do these techniques actually work? 

"Even when people have firearms, they're (the public) looking at us and telling us that we shouldn't use force," Spencer Fomby, a Berkley Police Department instructor said. "It's a tough situation."

The Department of Justice describes de-escalation as "the strategic slowing down of an incident in a manner that allows officers more time, distance, space and tactical flexibility during dynamic situations on the street."

It could include verbal techniques such as using open-ended questions like, "How can I help you," instead of threatening questions like, "Do you want to go to jail?" Or physical techniques like positioning and posture. 

All officers at the Berkeley Police Department are required to take a training course on verbal de-escalation techniques. Training like this is increasingly common, given the mounting pressure from the public. 

But despite some positive anecdotal reports, not much is known on how effective de-escalation techniques and training really are. 

A recent review, which surveyed scholarly articles on de-escalation training, found few studies over the last four decades. Most of what they did find were studies in nursing or psychiatry, not policing, and although some found moderate benefits to de-escalation training, the review authors say that the "questionable quality" of these studies makes it hard to draw conclusions.

One reason why so little is known is that de-escalation training hasn't been widespread or consistent across law enforcement. A 2017 study, which looked into deconstructing policing strategies in Spokane, WA, found that de-escalation techniques were not consistently used, likely because officers in Spokane used strategies they learned and honed on the job, in an ad hoc fashion. 

While research on de-escalation is limited, there is more evidence that escalating force can make things worse.

While research on de-escalation is limited, there is more evidence that the opposite —escalating force — can make things worse when police are dealing with crowds. Tear gas and rubber truncheons tend to fuel fear and hostility, but clear and consistent communication with crowds, like after sports games or during protests, can build trust and defuse volatile situations.

The Spokane study found that, overall, the strongest tactic was the "humanity" tactic — where, instead of exerting power, the officer treats the citizen as an equal and with respect. 

While evidence on the effectiveness of de-escalation is thin — research aside — perhaps we can all agree that "treating someone with respect" should be considered less of a "tactic" and more of a norm.

We'd love to hear from you! If you have a comment about this article or if you have a tip for a future Freethink story, please email us at [email protected]

Up Next

#FIXINGJUSTICE - policing
Independent Watchdog Invisible Institute Helps Police Accountability
How to Hold Police Accountable
Watch Now
#FIXINGJUSTICE - policing
Independent Watchdog Invisible Institute Helps Police Accountability
The Invisible Institute is making Chicago police complaints easily available to the public—and is helping hold police accountable.
Watch Now

A Freethink update: It's been several months since we first brought you the story of journalist Jamie Kalven and his influential "Sixteen Shots" expose in Slate that depicted a corrupt Chicago police department in the midst of a cover-up following the racist killing of teenager Laquan McDonald, who was shot 16 times by Officer Jason Van Dyke on October 20, 2014. Since then, Kalven has written another critical piece, this...

#fixingjustice - Policing
Do We Need More Police Or Better Police?
Do We Need More Police Or Better Police?
#fixingjustice - Policing
Do We Need More Police Or Better Police?
American cities are safer than they used to be, but they’re still quite violent, and many economists think they’re...

American cities are safer than they used to be, but they’re still quite violent, and many economists think they’re under-policed. More police could help reduce crime, but only if people trust them to do a good job.

#fixingjustice - Policing
Civilian Oversight Is a Solution to Police Misconduct. But is it Effective?
civilian oversight
#fixingjustice - Policing
Civilian Oversight Is a Solution to Police Misconduct. But is it Effective?
Creating a civilian review board to oversee police conduct seems like a straightforward solution to disciplinary...
By Andrew Denney

Creating a civilian review board to oversee police conduct seems like a straightforward solution to disciplinary issues on the force. But why is it so hard to implement?

Fixing Justice
Your Smartphone Can Help End Police Misconduct
Police Misconduct
Fixing Justice
Your Smartphone Can Help End Police Misconduct
There are now apps, websites, and phone shortcuts designed to help you not only document police misconduct, but also report and protect it.

There are now apps, websites, and phone shortcuts designed to help you not only document police misconduct, but also report and protect it.

Fixing Justice
Rethinking Public Safety: Are Police Always Needed?
Public Safety
Fixing Justice
Rethinking Public Safety: Are Police Always Needed?
The mobile mental health service CAHOOTS handles public safety calls related to mental or behavioral health for the Eugene Police Department.

The mobile mental health service CAHOOTS handles public safety calls related to mental or behavioral health for the Eugene Police Department.

#fixingjustice - policing
The Dad Changing How Police Shootings Are Investigated
The Dad Changing How Police Shootings Are Investigated
Watch Now
#fixingjustice - policing
The Dad Changing How Police Shootings Are Investigated
After his son was killed by police, Michael Bell fought for over a decade to change how we investigate police shootings.
Watch Now

For over a decade, ever since police killed his son, Michael Bell has been trying to get an independent investigation into the shooting — and he's fighting to make sure that every family is entitled to one, whenever police use lethal force. In November 2004, his son, Michael Bell, Jr., was pulled over in front of his home in Kenosha, Wisconsin, for an alleged traffic violation. Although a dashcam video captures the initial...

#fixingjustice - sentencing reform
Rising Stars in Criminal Justice Reform
Rising Stars in Criminal Justice Reform
#fixingjustice - sentencing reform
Rising Stars in Criminal Justice Reform
These key players are working from outside the system to lead the criminal justice reform movement.
By Amanda Winkler and Lise Metzger

These key players are working from outside the system to lead the criminal justice reform movement.