De-escalation Training: Why Funding’s Needed Now More Than Ever

“My team didn’t have enough resources to fully complete their tasks, so I’ve decided to cut their budget.”

The absurdity of this statement highlights the critical flaw of defunding the police.

With protests nationwide, the need is clear for increased resources that address the change demanded of law enforcement policies and practices. Whether an agency is working to engender public trust or an individual officer is talking to a suspect or witness, the political climate requires police approaches to be more nuanced than ever before—and executed with the high degree of skill.

Instead of removing resources from law enforcement (and dealing with the outrage when they’re unequipped to handle areas of their jobs), we should be adding or diverting resources to allow for tools that enable the police to carry out their vital tasks in the most effective manner.

One such tool is de-escalation training. In an environment where any instance of misbehavior—especially with a physical component—can spark a powder keg, the reasons not to explore a universally praised part of “new policing” are increasingly rare.

What is de-escalation training? What does it look like?

“When all you have is a hammer, all your problems start to look like nails.”

While police officers are undoubtedly taught rules of engagement that precede holds, subduing tools, or firearms, there is an entrenched mindset that such tools are still an “early option” in a public encounter, as illustrated in this example.

A mentally distraught person wielding a knife is wandering a strip mall parking lot and threatening suicide or harm to a loved one.

Officers arrive on scene and—per policy regarding knife-wielding suspectstake a covered perimeter, unholster weapons, and aim at the suspect.

Officers then loudly repeat commanding verbal instructions such as “Lie down!” and “Put the knife on the ground!”

As one can expect, the already agitated suspect is likely to respond to increased stimulation with increasingly erratic or dangerous behavior, which may then elicit a more forceful response from law enforcement.

De-escalation training aims to take scenes like these and give officers the tools they need to head them off before louder, more physical confrontation becomes necessary. In the above situation, an agency (with appropriate funding for de-escalation and mental health help procedures) may apply a policy that tells individual officers to approach with hands up, while still maintaining a substantial distance for fear of the bladed weapon, and speak to the person in a softer, easier tone.

Training officers to take this sort of approach in varied situations—combined with policy that dictates specific behaviors—can enable its increased use in the field.

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De-escalation by the numbers: Why your agency needs to budget for it

In an exhaustive 2016 piece on law enforcement de-escalation training, a Campaign Zero chart tells an interesting story. Although less than 50 percent of survey respondents claimed to require de-escalation training—a number that has likely risen since—departments that do implement restrictive policies see the following benefits in relation to their number of de-escalation policies:

  • Fewer deaths per arrest agencies reported
  • Fewer per-population deaths

Additionally, departments that “require [officers] to exhaust all other means before shooting”—a statement that distills de-escalation down to its most important tenet—saw per-capita killings drop by roughly 25 percent.

While this data focuses on fatalities—the worst possible outcome of an encounter—better de-escalation training can also address other negative outcomes such as harm, misconduct, or long-standing ill will from the public.

Train more with more resources—not less with fewer

Rather than defunding police, we need to give officers the tools they need to de-escalate now.

  • Funding is naturally essential. Ideally, communities and governments would be convinced of the benefits, but for departments unable to get more money for de-escalation, reappropriating training funds from other areas—such as training that puts too much emphasis on early physical intervention—may be the solution.
  • Training management systems must be able to adequately handle the training initiative. That means implementing comprehensive tools that help agencies draft, produce, schedule, integrate, and deliver training content in a consistent and manageable way.
  • Finally, tools must provide data-backed insight. At minimum, you should be able to examine your use-of-force incidents over a given period before and after new policies and trainings were introduced.

At this point, the policing world is as ready for change as the public. But radical overhauls and culture shifts do not happen overnight—or without significant funds. The benefits of de-escalation policies and training are that de-escalation is proven and more feasible for departments to implement today than more extreme measures. Building upon smaller initiatives that have shown success in reducing force and increasing readiness to respond should become the focus of law enforcement in this tumultuous time.

Posted on Mar 18, 2021