When Less (Force) Is More: De-escalation Strategies to Achieve Officer Objectives and Simultaneously Reduce the Use of Force

There is much talk among law enforcement officers about de-escalation and use of force—methods, appropriate use, and risk analysis. Although each officer needs to follow his or her training, individual judgment, and department policy on what response to take in a particular situation, many departments are beginning to see that often “less is more” when it comes to use of force with regard to community relations and responses to individuals with mental illnesses or substance use disorders.

Clear communication is one of the key elements in de-escalation, but poor communication can have the reverse effect, escalating a situation, instead. An example of poor communication occurred when a police officer on a traffic detail at a construction site noticed a stopped vehicle. Four young African American men were in the vehicle, and the driver rolled the window down to ask the officer directions. As the officer pondered the request, it became apparent to him that the directions were going to be difficult to follow, and he said to the driver, “Boy… that’s not an easy drive from here.” One of the men in the car took offense at the word “boy” and responded in an angry and derogatory manner to the officer’s statement.