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5 de-escalation techniques police officers should know

Three police officers stand outside of a station. Civilians crowd the edges of the frame.

De-escalation makes the community and officers alike safer

When a law enforcement officer is getting ready prior to duty they face three incredible pressures. For one, there is the possibility of violence on the job. For another, there’s the public's immense scrutiny of their actions. Last but not least, there is the mental toll these twin threats take. What if there were a way to address all three of these pressures at once?

Enter de-escalation techniques. Studies show de-escalation can keep both police and communities safer. That earns public goodwill and eases some of the mental strain police officers face every day.

Learn more about police officer training with Axon's Law enforcement training: The complete guide.

Why de-escalation techniques are vital

More and more, police officers are being called upon to help community members experiencing serious mental health crises. Officer Ryan Huber of the Cook County Sheriff’s Office in Illinois responded to such a call in April 2022. A man was walking in traffic on a business street and threatening to kill himself. When police arrived, the man asked them to shoot him.

While other officers redirected traffic, Officer Huber employed the de-escalation techniques he had learned through crisis intervention training, including engaging the man in conversation and slowly building rapport. Officer Huber's efforts at de-escalation were so effective, the individual agreed to leave the area and receive mental health treatment.

Without Officer Huber’s implementation of de-escalation techniques, the scene could easily have turned violent. Instead, no one – community member or officer – was injured. A growing body of research indicates this is not an isolated incident. One study found that when the Louisville Metro Police Department introduced de-escalation training, it showed significant improvements. Over 18 months, uses of force decreased 28%, community member injuries fell 26% and officer injuries dropped 36%. If those results weren’t enough, experts estimate that investing in de-escalation training may also be cost-effective. A single unjustified fatal or near-fatal use of force can cost tens of millions of dollars. With de-escalation training, it’s not just the rate of injuries that goes down – it’s costs, too.

By integrating the following five specific de-escalation techniques,agencies can better serve both their community and their officers.

De-escalation techniques to peacefully resolve a crisis

Engage empathy and reserve judgment

When officers first arrive on the scene for a request for service, they have to take in a lot of information quickly. They may find the person they’re here to help is in crisis or having a mental episode. People in these states are challenging to reason with because their thinking isn’t always rational, and their feelings are overwhelming. They can also be hard to understand, struggling to express how they feel or why.

Officers should refrain from judging the person, as doing so can worsen their mental state and raise the odds of a negative outcome. Instead, officers should extend empathy and work to build a rapport. This person’s feelings may not reflect reality, but the feelings themselves are real. Trying to understand their situation can help forge a connection between officers and the community members in question, building a base upon which to continue constructive dialogue. Paying attention to tone of voice, body language and more can help an officer understand what the community member is struggling with.

Virtual reality training can immerse officers in a variety of scenarios that change in response to their actions. Instructors can view how officers react to tense situations and get accurate data to improve feedback in real-time. Plus, with Axon VR Training, officers can experience these scenarios from the community member’s perspective. That can help build empathy for diverse viewpoints, making officers more patient and understanding in the field. Click here to learn more.

Maintain a calming presence

That focus on non-verbal communication runs both ways. Members of law enforcement should aim to keep their presence neutral. Respect the community member’s personal space and maintain a reasonable distance. This helps them feel safe and respected, which can lower their anxiety. It also helps keep the officer safe.

Officers should monitor their body language, facial gestures, movements and tone of voice. Keep these nonverbal cues as neutral as possible. Focus on keeping grounded and calm. Avoid strong emotional reactions and be mindful of word choices. Try to use affirmative, supportive language that helps put the community member at ease. Validating phrases such as “I understand how you feel” or “That must be hard” can help lower the temperature of a volatile situation.

People in crisis may try to provoke officers with bad faith or even offensive questions. In general, it’s best to avoid answering these questions. Instead, officers can redirect attention back to the current situation and how they can work with the community members to solve the problem.

Set limits, but pick your battles

When a person is in crisis, getting them to surrender peacefully can take a long time and require several steps. If a person is threatening to harm themselves, it’s not often possible to get them to calm down immediately. Instead, officers need to gradually lower the risk this person poses to themselves and the people around them. How do they do this? By making simple, clear requests and placing reasonable limits. For example, they can try asking the person in crisis to walk away from pedestrian-heavy areas. They can try asking them to sit down. They can also try telling the person that advancing toward civilians will have negative repercussions. These limits and any other requests an officer expresses should be easy to follow.

Setting limits is a delicate balance. Too many hard rules can be confusing or overwhelming. It can also force the officer to make a hard decision about whether to go through with the consequences they set for violating that limit. If the person in crisis stops shouting, they may still be open to moving away from nearby civilians. That brings the negotiation one step closer to peaceful resolution.

Any time an officer makes a request or sets a limit, they should pause and allow the community member time to think. These silent stretches give them the chance to reflect on their situation and decide what they’re going to do. This helps prevent feeling rushed or increasing the community member’s stress.

Getting the most from de-escalation techniques

Mental wellness

Law enforcement is a stressful job. Suppose an officer has spent their day dealing with several high-pressure situations. When it comes time to de-escalate a potentially violent one, they may be pushing their own emotional limits.

To combat this, agencies can build out their mental health resources. Peer support networks can help officers release the tension they’ve built over a shift. Resiliency resources can teach them how to mentally prepare for crises and stay calm throughout. Centralizing these resources under a wellness department can ensure officers have what they need to keep a level head and protect themselves and their communities. Axon Aid offers a free and robust library of resources to explain why wellness departments work and how you can build one at your agency.


Crisis management training is essential for law enforcement officers trying to learn de-escalation. It provides the skills, habits and techniques they need for success. Traditional training can be effective, and VR can take that to the next level with empathy-building community engagement scenarios.

If you’re considering launching or improving a comprehensive training program, Axon is here to help. Axon Academy is full of useful materials, from remotely accessible training to expert facilitators. Plus, Axon has created comprehensive training programs, including sophisticated VR training that can help your officers better understand the community members they’re trying to help. Click here to get in touch today and learn how Axon solutions can improve your de-escalation training.