7 Step Police Confrontation Deescalation Strategy
Like you, I am becoming increasingly sickened by the continuation of police confrontations that escalate into violence and death on both sides.
For forty years I have specialized in getting through to people and deescalating confrontations and preventing potentially violent outcomes. Part of that work has included training FBI and police hostage negotiators.
What follows is a seven-step approach that I have used and trained others to use to calm agitated, threatening and cornered people down and engage in a deescalating conversation. It works because it talks and walks a perpetrator from his/her most primitive, “fight or flight or freeze,” reactive reptile brain up into his/her rational human brain that is able to listen, process and think.
It is not meant as a replacement to current methods but as a supplement.
7 Steps to Deescalating Police Confrontations
- “Freeze!” — This is said because it is a nearly universally understood command to have someone stop whatever they are doing. It is a good first step because our most primitive brain when cornered does react with either: “fight or flight or freeze.” And of course, in these cases we don’t want them to react with “fight or flight.”
- “Whoa… whoa… whoa… whoa” — This is said in response to an agitated and verbally and often cornered threatening perpetrator. It is delivered in a calm but firm voice with one hand gesturing for the person to calm down his/her behavior and the other hand on the handle of a gun in its holster and with a back up officer at the ready to intervene if deadly force is called for. Saying this will often create what is referred to as a pattern interrupt and cause the perpetrator to respond with, “What?” This statement has the effect of momentarily stopping the escalating behavior.
- “Shhh… shhh… shhh… shhh” — This is said again in a calm, slowed but firm voice with one hand gesturing for the person to calm down his/her behavior and the other hand on the handle of a gun in its holster after the perpetrator has responded to the prior statement. It will often cause them to respond with either, “Huh?” or again with “What?” This statement has the effect of slightly quieting the perpetrator’s mind.
- “What just happened that has led you to this?” — This has the effect of inviting the perpetrator to share a story of events leading to this confrontation. As he/she relates the story, they will feel listened to, understood and that the law officer is validating that something led to the current confrontation and will further calm down.
- “Tell me more” — When the perpetrator pauses, saying “Tell me more” communicates interest and that the police officer is not taking issue with the story, but instead is inviting the perpetrator to get more off his/her mind. As they say more, and feel listened to, the blood begins to shift from their lower reptilian reactive brain up more to their higher human rational brain.
- “And because of all that, that is why you’re acting the way you are?” By connecting what they say to the how they are acting, you’re communicating that what they’re doing sort of makes sense from their point of view given what they have described led up to it. This further deepens the rapport with the negotiator and a chemical called oxytocin goes up, the stress hormone cortisol goes down and with it their reactivity and agitation.
- “A better thing to do right now would be to ________” After a while the perpetrator may begin to relax at which point the negotiator can invite them to “fill in the blanks” with an alternate behavior. By using “fill in the blanks” languaging instead of questioning, the perpetrator is invited semantically to join with the negotiator and come up with a better solution. Transforming combativeness into cooperation through the vehicle of the empathic communication has the psychological effect of the negotiator partnering with the perpetrator to come up with a way out of the situation.
As previously mentioned, the above approach has the effect of walking an agitated cornered, perpetrator up through his/her “fight or flight or freeze” reptilian brain up through his/her emotions and finally up into his/her rational brain.
When someone is already agitated, their blood is flowing through their primitive reptilian brain and cannot access reason or even listen effectively. By engaging them using the above six steps which provides a way that helps them “punch/talk themselves out” using words instead of behavior, blood begins to flow to their upper reasoning brain and they are more able to engage in a conversation that can steer them away from a destructive “fight or flight” reaction that can end up deadly.
When that happens, it increases the chance of everyone leaving the confrontation alive.