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De-escalation training: What it is and why elite agencies prioritize it

A well-equipped police officer questions a civilian as his body-worn camera records the interaction.

Learn how modern police de-escalation training improves outcomes and builds trust

Whatever kind of situation an officer is responding to, it’s their job to make things better.

“Better” can mean many different things depending on the scene: It might mean asking a group of revelers to keep the noise level down for sleepy neighbors. It might mean preventing a verbal altercation from going physical. What it doesn’t mean is making the situation more tense, hostile or potentially even deadly than it was before the officer arrived.

There’s no one technique to address the infinite variety of situations an officer may step into. Yet effective de-escalation training can lead to better outcomes for community members and police alike, all while improving the relationship between the two. But how do you know if it’s a good fit for your department? Let’s start with the fundamentals.

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

What is police de-escalation training?

Police de-escalation training is an educational methodology that equips officers with both basic practices and advanced techniques they can use to help calm tense situations down. Rather than working from the belief that police officers must take control of potential danger the moment they arrive on the scene, de-escalation training begins with the goal of minimizing harm above all else.

With that baseline established, methods for verbal de-escalation training can proceed to address the cause of potential criminal activity rather than just the symptom. Ultimately, de-escalation training helps police officers serve their roles as protectors and resources for the community.

It may sound like a radical take on the basics of keeping the peace, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Sir Robert Peel, commonly known as the “Father of Modern Policing” for his role in establishing the London Metropolitan Police Force in 1829, laid out much the same notion in the sixth of his Nine Policing Principles:

“To use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to obtain public cooperation to an extent necessary to secure observance of law or to restore order and to use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion for achieving a police objective.”

Thankfully, modern police departments are in an even better position to implement these principles thanks to comprehensive educational programs. For instance, the advent of mental health de-escalation training in virtual reality, as well as other forms of VR training for police officers, helps immerse officers in situations that bolster empathy and build muscle memory. These types of de-escalation training offer realistic, repeatable practices for resolving conflicts while maximizing safety and well-being for everyone involved.

Why are verbal de-escalation training and other methodologies on the rise?

A 2015 report from the Police Executive Research Forum found that “the training currently provided to new recruits and experienced officers in most departments is inadequate” as it relates to de-escalating challenging situations. Furthermore, many officers’ training in the topics of use-of-force situations and how to minimize them was presented in a fractured way. This can make it unnecessarily difficult for officers to see how each piece fits together practically while carrying out their daily duties.

A range of high-profile use-of-force incidents have led to increasing public distrust toward community policing institutions over the last decade. Rather than indulging in unproductive “us versus them” narratives, forward-thinking departments have decided to tackle the issue from the ground up. These departments respond to protests with invitations to open communication, ensuring that demonstrations are able to spread their message – as is their constitutionally guaranteed right – while preventing injury, destruction of property and other criminal activity.

Implementing guidelines toward crowd management at a training level provides officers on the ground with clear, actionable steps to prevent potentially dangerous situations from arising. When any flare-ups do still arise, officers who feel confident in their de-escalation training will not contribute to making the situation worse and will instead work to ensure the protest – or any other public activity – continues toward its actual purpose in a productive and peaceful manner.

De-escalation training can’t give officers a one-size-fits-all solution to every potential issue. Even so, research indicates it works very well. Here are some highlights from a study of the Louisville, Kentucky police department’s practical implementation of police de-escalation training:

  • Use-of-force incidents dropped by 28%.

  • Citizen injuries dropped by 26%.

  • Officer injuries dropped by 36%.

That third statistic is especially noteworthy because it runs counter to the common narrative that de-escalation training sacrifices the well-being of officers. In fact, making these changes improved officer safety even more than they did citizen safety. When officers default to making situations safer for everyone involved, truly everyone involved benefits.

How to bring de-escalation training to your agency

While the departments we’ve mentioned so far have found success with their changes, not every institution has access to the same level of training resources. This is especially true as recruitment issues stretch existing staff so thin that multi-day events and offsite exercises become increasingly impractical to attend. While these types of training exercises are often worthwhile investments when possible, they are thankfully not the only way to bring de-escalation training to your department.

Axon VR training uses state-of-the-art technology and innovative training methods to deliver the future of public safety training. Its immersive scenarios allow officers to virtually respond to a variety of situations while being able to learn from mistakes and try again. It even lets officers take on the perspective of individuals experiencing mental health crises and trauma to build empathy when it’s time to respond for real. It isn’t just verbal de-escalation training either – officers can sharpen their skills with TASER energy weapons in a virtual firing range, making them feel more comfortable reaching for something other than their firearm in a potentially dangerous situation.

If you’d like to learn more about how Axon can help your department implement practical de-escalation training techniques, speak directly with an Axon VR professional today.