The Case for De-Escalation Training: Doing Right by Officers and Communities

Rather than approaching de-escalation from a strict psychological definition of personality, NDTC teaches officers to rapidly identify one’s personality by observation of visible characteristics and verbal cues.

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A constant refrain from communities is that officers should be required to attempt to de-escalate situations before – or rather than – using force. Officers rightly recognize that that is often unrealistic, but some go further to say that de-escalation does not work at all. Opponents argue that not everyone responds to de-escalation; it limits officers’ options in a situation; or officers cannot read a script for every interaction.  However, the National De-escalation Training Center (NDTC) addresses these issues with evidence-based practice, grounded in procedural justice, augmented with rapid (less than 10 seconds) personality assessment to respond to citizen encounters in a manner that stabilizes and de-escalates situations.   This demand for de-escalation is not going to go away. As activists become more organized and politicians see training as an attractive option, agencies are going to start feeling the pressure.  But there is some lemonade to be made with these lemons. By training officers to de-escalate situations without using force, agencies can reduce many of the unfortunate consequences of force: injured officers, injured or dead civilians, and lawsuits.

Law Enforcement Costs

Outside of car accidents, officers are most likely to be injured in the line of duty when they must use force to resolve a situation. These situations often result in civilians being injured and the community’s perception of law enforcement suffering. The lawsuits that frequently result from these situations soak up valuable resources in court battles, with everyone in the chain of command getting involved and potentially wasting their time.  The City of Chicago paid out more than $67 million in police misconduct settlements in 2021, with most going toward cases where officers used excessive force. New York City paid out more than $1.1 billion from 2015 – mid 2021 for police misconduct, including use of force. From 2010 – 2022, cities across the United States paid out more than $1.5 billion in cases where an officer’s conduct led to more than one payout, again including cases of excessive and/or unnecessary uses of force.

While the public should not form an opinion regarding police without awareness of all the facts related to use of force situations, it is better to avoid having to resort to force if possible. That is where NDTC comes in. Our guiding philosophy is from Sun Tzu’s Art of War – to win 100 battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill. While force must always be a viable option, we train officers to intervene in situations to prevent escalation as well as to stop aggression and violence when citizens are already in an escalated state.

We recognize that de-escalation is a tool, rather than a cure for all that ails policing. It is not going to magically address the issues that the public sees – disparity, over- and under-enforcement, or lawful but awful uses of force. Nor is it going to fix the issues that officers encounter – disrespect, defiance, and willful noncompliance in the community, or the sky-high expectations with minimal support. But what de-escalation training will do is provide officers with another tool they can use to accomplish their mission – keep the public safe and maintain order.

Current research supports this viewpoint. Robin Engel and her team’s recent study on the impact of de-escalation training of Louisville Metropolitan Police Department on their uses of force showed that an agency that trains its officers to de-escalate situations uses less force. Other studies have supported agencies providing de-escalation training; finding that officers are broadly receptive, the community supports spending the money on it, and agencies want their officers to have it. 

Tools of the Trade

However, not all de-escalation training is equal. NDTC is the only provider of Level 3 de-escalation training. In our view, all de-escalation training comes back to the core tenets of procedural justice – treating the public how officers would want to be treated (Level 1). However, as law enforcement has frequently recognized, treating everyone the same way is often ineffective. Individuals experiencing an emotional or mental health crisis, or under the influence of a substance, often cannot comprehend what officers are trying to do or have issues controlling their reactions. Level 2 training, a primer on crisis intervention, teaches officers the techniques necessary to resolve those situations as peacefully as possible. Level 3 training builds on the foundation of procedural justice by incorporating the fact that people are different. They react to situations differently and will react to what officers say in a different way. The civilian’s reaction depends on their personality. Rather than approaching de-escalation from a strict psychological definition of personality, NDTC teaches officers to rapidly identify one’s personality by observation of visible characteristics and verbal cues. This training takes advantage of cutting-edge work in the intelligence community, teaching officers not only how to recognize different personality types, but tailor their response during citizen encounters so the procedurally-just de-escalation message will be more effective.  

NDTC is a Michigan 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation that operates through a national network of regional training centers.  Currently, the organization includes the following four regional centers: 1) northern region at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan; 2) central region at Fort Hays State University in Hays, KS; 3) mid-Atlantic region consisting of a partnership between the North Carolina Justice Academy and Western Carolina University; 4) northeast region, a partnership between the University of New Haven and Yale University. In addition to these centers, two regional centers are in the final stages of development including the southern and southeast regions in Texas and Florida.  

The structure of this national network has laid the foundation to evaluate NDTC’s De-escalation: Principles and Practice curriculum, which is founded in research that incorporates scenario-based training for officers to demonstrate application of de-escalation tools. The training is available by three modalities, including 1) an 8-hour interactive online training, 2) a 16-hour face-to-face training, and 3) a 40-hour train-the-trainer course.  This innovative training is certified by the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards & Training (IADLEST) as well as supported by the Office of Community-Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office).  Fort Hays State University has received $2.75 million to facilitate de-escalation training to agencies, including $1.25 million through a COPS Community Policing Development Regional De-escalation Training Center award, and $1.5 million through a Byrne Community Projects Grant.  In addition, the University of New Haven recently received $1 million and Wayne State University just under $1 million as Regional De-escalation Training Center awards. Funding is crucial for bringing evidence-based de-escalation to law enforcement agencies at little to no cost.

De-escalation training can be effective in helping law enforcement avoid unnecessary conflict with the public. Follow up conversations following training consistently include reports of how officers were able to resolve situations without going hands-on and/or without making an arrest due to the new tools available to them.  The following quotes from law enforcement representing different types of agencies support the effectiveness of the training.

Takeaways on De-Escalation Training

A university police officer reported, after completing “the de-escalation training, it felt like I have added many tools to my law enforcement belt.  Since the training, I have encountered many calls and situations that I have felt more comfortable and prepared to work through.”

A city police officer indicated the NDTC De-escalation: Principles & Practice “was a great training to attend.  The instructors were knowledgeable and brought their own experiences to the classroom.  This training brought a lot of details to light that I would normally overlook.  It brought an understanding to the types of personalities that people have and how to address them without escalating a situation . . . allowing me to address [citizens] according to their personalities.” 

A deputy shared that he “found this training to be of value as it provided a better approach to people as individuals.  The generic training received at most agencies treats people all the same and doesn’t address their individual behaviors or characteristics.  I have been pushing for my agency to adopt this training since I [attended].  I’m excited to attend the train-the-trainer portion to better train my coworkers to handle different situations and people more effectively.”   

Region 2 looks forward to expanding our reach further to train agencies through the online, 16-hour, and train-the-trainer courses. As conflict between officers and community continue, de-escalation offers a path forward. While it will not cure all that ails policing, by providing another tool for officers to use, de-escalation training can reduce officer and civilian injuries, complaints against officers, and time and money spent in court. Doing right by officers requires nothing less than doing what we can to keep them safe as they protect us.