Reframing De-escalation

September 27, 2023

By Dr. Joel F. Shults

Despite the notion among police critics that things always get worse when the cops show up, police officers are generally quite competent and experienced in getting situations stabilized and calmer. Unrealistic expectations result in the persistent question and critique – “Why didn’t they de-escalate?” The answer to that question consists of two factors: time and distance.

Time is an essential element of de-escalation. Consensus among psychologists is that it takes 20-30 minutes for the adrenaline chemicals associated with fight/flight to dissipate in the body. That presumes that there are no ongoing stressors that continue to ignite the body’s stress response that keeps the chemistry coursing through it. There is a complex series of brain activity required for making a decision to change behavior, known as neural braking. The brain’s survival (fight/flight) centers have the authority to overwrite the rational thinking part of the brain, so it takes time to shift from survival mode to rational decision-making.

This is an internal process governed by what is perceived through the body’s senses. If a person has the capacity to return to rational decision making (retreat, calming, compliance) it takes the ticking of the clock to do so.

A police officer – or mental health responder – entering into a crisis situation can only act in ways that give time and rationale for a person to cease the disruptive behavior that gave rise to the 911 call bringing them into the scenario. This assumes a degree of rationality on the subject’s part. A police officer cannot know immediately if the person is rational or, if under the influence of drugs or psychosis, is processing what the officer is communicating or is hallucinating that the person intervening is a giant cockroach or some kind of murderous demon.

A second essential in de-escalation is the proximity of the subject to others. If the subject is close enough to others, or can escape to be in proximity to others, to present a threat of some type of assault in their agitated state, the police officer may not have the luxury of time for the sake of protecting themselves or others.

Questions of why an officer failed to use less lethal force can often be answered by the demands of time and distance. Even deadly force with multiple rounds fired is no guarantee that a dangerous suspect can be immediately stopped.  The TASER, for example, can be thwarted if the probes are not aligned in a way that produces the effective shot to immobilize an active aggressor.

Although not considered de-escalation in common parlance the use of force, including deadly force is, in fact, de-escalation if it stops the aggressiveness of a threat. It is at the top of the de-escalation continuum, reminiscent of the classic use of force continuum. To say that the use of force is a failure of de-escalation is not accurate if such use stops the escalating or continuing behavior of a threat.

The term de-escalation first appears in the 1960s but became a widely used term only within the last decade, and especially since 2015 in the aftermath of high-profile incidents involving police. The term has taken on a mythical quality with the assumption that it is always an option for law enforcement short of deadly force. Perhaps law enforcement should help the public understand that what we include under the umbrella of de-escalation two categories: internal and external. Internal efforts are when an officer, or other bystander, guides a person in their internal process of neural braking, providing time and distance to allow a person to make the decision to cease their disruptive behavior. Manipulating another person’s mental process of deciding to alter their behavior is an inexact science, the outcome of which in not predictable with any certainty, and ultimately entirely dependent on the disruptive person.

External de-escalation is the application of forcible efforts to stop or alter behavior. This ranges from hands-on restraint to less lethal force to deadly force. While efforts to guide a subject to engage in neural braking through a variety of negotiation tactics that are used routinely by police should be a priority, the process may culminate in a lawful and reasonable external control. A broader and more rational understanding of the unfortunate term de-escalation is vital for the public at large and for the police culture as well.

[Thoughts? Comments? E-mail us at:]

About the author

Dr. Joel Shults is a retired Chief of Police who served in Colorado. He earned a doctorate degree in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri and holds a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and a bachelors degree in criminal justice from the University of Central Missouri. Over the course of his 30-year law enforcement career he has served as an academy instructor, chaplain, community relations officer and investigator. Joel Shults operates Street Smart Training and is the founder of the National Center for Police Advocacy. His latest book The Badge and the Brain is available at

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  1. David OLaughlin

    Great article. It articulates the processes involved in de-escalation in a way that can be used effectively when defending the actions of the police to those who may be in a position of adjudication.

  2. Don Black

    Now, if we just had someone to get this out to the public and the media. The truth is that law enforcement has no voice. The chiefs and sheriffs are not speaking out. The police unions are not speaking out. In Colorado, the “police reform” bill is badly flawed and has driven thousands of officers out of law enforcement. Officers are being wrongfully prosecuted. I commend the author. I condemn the political types who are supposedly leading law enforcement.

    • Wyatt

      You’re partially right: The Chief and Sheriffs are speaking out, but with their own political aspirations in the forefront. They go along with the political thoughts on these issues and fail to make true headway in educating the public.

  3. Joel Johnston

    Outstanding article! It is a tough sell to the ‘public’ (and certainly to special-interest groups, and a misinformed and/or often agenda-wielding media), that deadly force is a form of ‘de-escalation’. It often comes across as an insensitive interpretation of the term. However, all of your points are valid and true. I think we all agree, that the ideal ‘version’ of de-escalation is where the police (or whomever may be ‘assisting’ them) are able to instill some functional rationality within the person who is creating or sustaining the threatening situation, and help them make better choices. As anyone who has dealt with critical incidents (all cops) knows, this is not always possible. And sometimes that becomes evident almost immediately. Usually because of the factors you have mentioned here (time & distance) – often dictated by the degree of containment, and the isolation of the subject. If containment is poor, and the subject has access to potential victims, or if the containment is tight, but the subject has access to potential victims within the contained area, options for de-escalation become challenged. The speed with which someone has the capacity to return to rationality (or apply the neural brakes) becomes critically-important – so do the the techniques applied by the ‘de-escalators’. But, the reality remains, if the subject cannot return to functional rationality, and imminently threatens the safety of anyone (including first-responders), they will become subject to ‘external de-escalation measures’. Hopefully there is an opportunity for less-lethal options – but this will not always be possible, for a variety of reasons (resource capacity, range, circumstances, time, etc.). I have always believed that given good containment, and subject isolation, that police do, and are pretty good at trying to ‘de-escalate’ people ‘in-crisis’. Some need more training in this area. Simply yelling commands repeatedly (and sometimes conflicting and competing commands) is not always ideal. If the officer has some distance and possibly barriers, and has the subject contained and isolated (from the world of ‘wouldn’t it be nice’), then every effort should be made to allow for neural braking to occur. Calm, non-threatening, easy-to-understand (i.e., simple) direction and dialogue should be engaged in, for as long as necessary. My training, and fortunately, the agency I worked with for 28 years had great training and good capacity (wide-ranging less-lethal response options, trained crisis intervention specialists, trained negotiators, trained psych nurses, full-time ERT, full-time K9, etc.). But even with all of this, force could not always be avoided, and ‘external de-escalation measures’ had to be deployed.

    • George Mason

      ” Simply yelling commands repeatedly (and sometimes conflicting and competing commands) is not always ideal.”

      So please explain to me when shouting conflicting commands to am individual that is angry or agitated and scared and hurt is the ideal scenario??

      You cops really are clueless about how you basically don’t know the laws or the constitution. So go around making your own versions up as u go along and trample we the people’s Constitutional rights every day. The very rights you have sworn an oath and duty to protect you ignore cause your egos can’t handle anyone being your equal.

      You are clueless as to how this country is waking up to the lies to cover up your crimes and hide your illegal tactics and people are seeing you all for the criminals and criminal organizations that you are.

      Every day there is a new police Officer involved shooting ( or most likely execution) and there is one common thread among all these shooting. You know what it is? One undeniable fact that they all have in common? Do you know what it is? As good little piggies you should?

      It is that cops lie! Period!
      The stories officers tell are always exaggeration s and lies and the camera footage proves it. And you all back each other and we all know how and why that is. Every day there is a new one and every day cops lie. Why can’t you all just do your jobs.

      Our founding fathers said ” Better 10 guilty men walk free than 1 innocent man be convicted. But you all don’t believe that . You think everyone guilty just because you found a reason to arrest them and you don’t care about innocence or guilt. You and prosecuters think that it is better for 10 innocent men be guilty than one guilty man go free. Can’t you cops just do your jobs the way you are trained or should be.

      • Ja

        Sounds like you should go through the training and pin a badge on to show us how it’s done.

  4. Glen Mills

    Excellent – Very succinct and to the point. De-escalation of aggressive people is similar to dealing with other hazards. Time-Distance and Shielding are valuable tools for aggressive people, weapons, chemical hazards, explosive hazards and radiation.

    The primary difference is that people do not move in predictable ways and can decrease time, close distance and avoid or defeat shielding. This is an excellent quote: “Manipulating another person’s mental process of deciding to alter their behavior is an inexact science, the outcome of which in not predictable with any certainty, and ultimately entirely dependent on the disruptive person.”

  5. Tom POpken

    Great article! The term de-escalation has been so abused over the years. The media and many others believe there is no situation that cannot be de-escalated. Then you can really blow their minds when you say deadly force CAN de-escalate a situation.

  6. Dale Gustafson

    Great article – to the point! Pure and simple, the decision, or choice, to de-escalate is made by the “offender”. As the Chief states, adrenaline plays a major role, but so does substance abuse and mental illness and the offender’s conscious decision to fight or resist the police. A police officer can do EVERYTHING correct and not be able to de-escalate an incident. The public holds the police responsible, but it’s not always under the officer’s control. Holding the officer accountable is proper if that officer hasn’t used time and distance (and other de-escalation tactics), but each analysis needs to consider that, in most cases, the “offender” makes the decision.

  7. Peter J. Donnelly

    i’m going out on a limb here and say that the subject in a police call decides the distance and time in a critical police incident. For example, he or she shouting the loudest controls the communicationt” I used scenario based training and the officers trained with their usual partners. One older officer would drop his voice, put his fingers to his lips, and used the “Shhh,’ technique and it worked., Secondly, I’ve noticed in press conferences or briefings, chiefs and command officers are stressing the use of force was warranted to protect third parties, or innocent bystanders, Secondly we have to find away to deal with the public attitude that “we don’t have to listen to the police.”, or, “I aint takin’ orders from no white man.” This where persistence and patience pay off and at some point, the officer realizes the talking stops and the cuffs come out. The officer can only back up or off so far.

  8. Robert D Hinckley Sr

    Your article was very good and totally true. However, let’s say the officer has the time and the wherewithal to continue a verbal conversation with this subject. What do they do with them next? They fill out a 302, maybe jail, or prison. Unfortunately, either way you slice it, they’re back on the street within 24 hours. Generally speaking, these folks are frequent fliers. It’s estimated that 64% of all inmates have one, or several, mental health disorders. It’s a revolving door for most of these people. The issue is really, how do we deal with these people on a long-term basis. The de-escalation part, I would surmise most officer’s are fairly good at getting things calmed down. The elephant in the room, is what do we do with them so that we don’t see them the following weekend? Our government has turned a blind eye when it comes to the mental health community. Like any other medical condition, they will need long-term care, whether that be inpatient, or out-patient. But there’s no money in it, now, or ever. Whether it drugs or mental illness, de-escalation is a symptom of the larger picture. Unfortunately, unless the problem is analyzed from start to finish, and there is a care plan in place, with follow-up, these folks will be the problem of the police and then the police get blamed when things go sideways.


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