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De-escalation and managing heightened emotions


October 27, 2021
By Steven Poplawski
Credit: THIRDKEY / ADOBE STOCK

Evidence-based training developed through applied research and real-world application

Traditionally, police training primarily focuses on gaining compliance from a person, while ensuring the safety of all involved. The goal of the process is ‘subject compliance’. Once safety is established, the need to achieve compliance is placed first in the process of de-escalation and the management of emotional escalation. With the focus of the interaction on achieving this goal, the personal or human needs of the person would be placed further down the line. Officers can convey options, speak to consequences of non-compliance and deliver education regarding the rules and laws surrounding the issue.

While the professional need of subject compliance is important to this process, what is often missed or placed at the end of the interaction is the person themself. Through proper training, a service approach to de-escalation is recommended, focusing first on the human needs and the physiology of the person. When and how should officers deal with the human needs of the person they are attempting to de-escalate? Can addressing human needs help avoid escalation before it starts?

Personal vs. professional needs

Imagine a person driving a vehicle and they have just come over the top of a hill. On their right they see a police cruiser and realize they were exceeding the speed limit. Flashing lights emerge in their rear-view mirror and they pull over. The officer appears at the window and asks, “Do you know how fast you were going?” This is a typical example of how professional needs are placed ahead of human needs; the focus goes immediately to the speeding offence instead of the driver.

In this case, the driver is likely experiencing stress and emotions as a result of being pulled over. There is likely fear relating to the potential ticket costs and the increased car insurance associated. In most cases, there would be overall anxiety as a result of being pulled over, and this fear might even cause a physiological response like increased heart rate, lack of focus and/or sweating. Emotions are primed and elevated, simply by the situation they find themself in.

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Human needs first

Based on advancements of research and training, there is a new model of training for de-escalation that places the human needs of the person directly after the establishment of safety. In the example provided, the officer should first focus on the person and their immediate human needs before addressing any speed violations.

The officer should employ the professional tools of personalization and validation prior to the discussion of speed limits. In this modern process, the officer needs to assess if the person is ready to receive the information that they are about to deliver. It cannot be assumed that because you are talking with someone, they are listening. Unless the human factors have been addressed, it is likely that the person’s fear of the situation is preventing any real communication and understanding between them. The physiological stress response they are experiencing is real and can directly lead to escalated emotions.

Establishing trust as a priority

Research in human behaviour indicates that trust is achieved by first focusing on the person and their direct needs. We need to remember that professional goals are the officer’s own goals in this situation. The importance they place on them may not be shared by the person they are interacting with. The person will likely not be interested in the seatbelt program that is currently being enforced or the speed complaint that led the officer to their current location. Initially, the driver will be viewing the event from their own point of view and will be more concerned about the cost of the impending fine.

Trust is established through the officer’s acknowledgement of the person’s human needs and a genuine effort to address them. If compliance is being sought after, why would someone do that if trust has not yet been established? Until a human connection is made, the officer is viewed through a lens of authority. The focus is on the uniform instead of the officer themselves. The person’s attention is on “what’s going to happen to me?”.

If the officer takes a few moments at the beginning of the encounter to establish themself as a person, and acknowledge their human needs, there can be greater results in lowering emotions. An officer can present their own name and acknowledge that they are aware that being pulled over can be stressful for some people. In doing this, the officer has ‘normalized’ the emotions the driver is experiencing. The simple act of acknowledging their situation can build trust and allow the officer to move forward with the professional needs. The stage for real communication is being set by first letting the person know they are seen and that their concerns will be heard. The process will be one that the officer and driver work through together. Agreement is not required in order to make a meaningful connection. The process of real human connection is the point, and it still allows for enforcement when appropriate.

Focus on acceptance

When it comes to de-escalation, compliance can always be achieved. The application of force will ultimately gain compliance. Force, however, is not easily accepted by the public, and although necessary at times, needs to be reduced and eliminated when possible.

In placing human needs first, the focus of attention needs to be on gaining acceptance.

Acceptance leads to compliance. When we apply professional techniques like validation, we are showing the other person that we are willing to see them as a person. Officers can focus on a process that brings both people together, and working towards understanding and acceptance.

In the speeding example provided, it would be better if the officer were able to convey to the driver why speed enforcement is happening, and how the speed enforcement is there to protect the public. If acceptance of this fact is established, then long term compliance will be achieved.

From a human perspective, the goal of de-escalation is to gain ‘voluntary’ acceptance and compliance of what must be done. It is through acceptance that lasting compliance is achieved.

Acknowledging human needs

The path of enforcement and compliance must begin with acknowledging the human needs of the person first. In following this process, officers are first focused on making genuine human connections with the people they serve, before addressing any professional needs. Strict enforcement is not the goal; acceptance of the law and the enforcement initiative is. It’s only when we establish trust with the person that real communication occur, and provide the opportunity for acceptance. Emotional reactivity and escalation are more likely to occur when there is a sense of disconnect. When the safety needs are met, focus on the person first, build that connection and establish trust, and then you will be in a good position to deal with the professional needs of the day.


Steven Poplawski, BA, is a retired Senior Constable, and is now an Instructor and Research Assistant. Having worked in policing for over 20 years, Poplawski has always been involved in the training and education of law enforcement professionals. He has provided training in defensive tactics, Reality Based Training, firearms and many other areas through his role as a certified Police Use of Force Instructor in the Province of Ontario.


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