Vol. 76, No. 1External submissions

De-escalation training for police

In 2011, the Edmonton Police Service collaborated with the University of Alberta to improve the interaction between police officers and those suffering from a mental illness. Credit: Edmonton Police Service


Police officers are now frequently the first-line responders for those suffering a mental health or addiction problem, but training in handling these cases isn't keeping up with the need.

To counter this, the Edmonton Police Service (EPS) teamed up with the University of Alberta to investigate a new way to improve outcomes. This research was led by Dr. Peter Silverstone and PhD candidate Yasmeen Krameddine, and the results to date are very positive.

The training focuses on improving interactions between police officers and individuals exhibiting various forms of mental illness. What makes it novel is that it uses actors to portray real-life scenarios, developed in close collaboration between police and the University of Alberta.

Police officers then interact with the actors in these scenarios. The goal is to increase skills in active verbal/non-verbal communication, de-escalation techniques, empathetic understanding and mental-health knowledge.

This program is run as a one-day intensive training program with six scenarios: depression, addiction, schizophrenia, alcohol withdrawal, mania and a suicidal individual.

It allows officers to improve their interactions in real-life situations. One important part of the training is the use of professional actors, who give feedback to the officers after each scenario. This is in addition to feedback from more senior training officers.

The actors are trained to acknowledge both the positive and negative behaviours of each officer during the scenario, giving officers in-depth feedback on how the officer made the actor feel during the interaction. Feedback is crucial for officers to understand how their actions affect the emotions and behaviour of individuals they come in contact with. The actors were trained extensively on verbal and non-verbal communication techniques, and varied their interactions depending on what the officer said or did.

For example, if the officer rolled his or her eyes, didn't listen to what was being said or tried to rush the actor, the actor would in turn behave more belligerently and less helpfully.

In contrast, if the officer looked engaged, gave the actor his or her attention and held eye contact, the actor would be more relaxed, helpful and supply all the information asked for.

Emphasis during the feedback for each scenario was on increasing the expression of empathic feelings and body language expressed to the actors in the scenarios.

After the scenario was complete, the feedback continued to highlight why the actor behaved in certain ways. This allowed police to have an outside perspective of their actions and body language, giving them a better view of how their actions or what they said impacted the way they are viewed.

An example of feedback from an actor would be "When you asked me my name, I felt like you actually cared about me, as a person, so I was comfortable in answering your questions" or "when you told me to calm down it made me angry because your tone suggested you didn't care why I was so angry."

To date, more than 650 police officers have completed this training. Results have been very positive.

Over a six-month period, EPS members demonstrated significant improvements in their communication, empathy and de-escalation skills, as observed by their supervising officers.

Additionally, there was an improvement in an officer's ability to confidently recognize, respond and empathetically communicate with individuals in distress.

This supported a 41 per cent increase in the actual number and classification of mental health calls, with 19 per cent less time being spent on each call, thus an increase in efficiency. Over a six-month period, this led to cost savings of $83,828.

Additionally, police reported feeling significantly more confident in their training and ability to interact with a mentally ill individual. There was also a large decrease (more than 40 per cent) in the use of any kind of force when interacting with mentally ill individuals, although there were other internal police initiatives that may have helped this latter figure.

These results show promise, and continue to emphasize the positive effects of this innovative mental health training initiative. What's interesting about the research that was done, and the tips provided, is that little things can make a big difference.

Active listening and expressing empathy in both verbal and non-verbal communication improves outcomes for police officers, particularly when interacting with those who have mental illness and/or addiction problems.

This study also shows that these skills can be taught and improved, and that this leads to true-to-life training and real-life application. Feedback from officers taking part repeatedly said how realistic the scenarios were and that they were able to subsequently incorporate these skills into their daily tasks.

Dos and don'ts for talking to people with psychiatric problems

Try to do the following:

  • Ask individuals their name in a conversational manner, and offer yours. This small act of bonding can go a long way in developing an understanding and empathetic relationship.
  • Active listening. This is done by keeping attention and maintaining eye contact on the individual. You can also summarize what they say by repeating it back to them. Nod your head up and down to demonstrate strong non-verbal understanding. If you show you are actively listening, you will increase empathy with the subject, helping you gain any information and insights you need.
  • Use "open" body language. Body language is an unconscious form of communication that can escalate or de-escalate situations depending how it's used. Keep a calm and relaxed posture, try not to cross your arms, smile and show you're concerned. These behaviours allow the subject to feel safe and trusted.
  • Mirroring. Copy their body language if you can. It's a powerful way of empathizing using non-verbal communication.
  • Label and confirm their feelings. Since feelings and emotions are frequently a major cause of problems, labelling their feelings shows you are listening, for example, "It sounds like you're feeling very underappreciated." Confirming also helps them see that their feelings are normal, such as "anyone would feel sad after losing their job."
  • Focus on family. By asking the person about their family or friends, you can decrease their isolation and remind them that they have people in their life. Examples may be "do you have any children?" and "what would your children do if they no longer had you in their life?"
  • Tell them what you are doing and why. Research shows that if you explain to the individual what you have to do and why, there will be less chance of aggression and escalation. For example "I am going to have to arrest you because it looks like there are five warrants out for your arrest."

Try not to do the following:

  • Telling them to "calm down" or "relax." These words may make them angry because they feel they're being talked down to and told what to do. This does the opposite of making someone feel calm.
  • Using dominating body language. Standing over an individual with your feet planted, hands on your waist or on your gun, can indicate control and power. This may make the person feel defensive, powerless and unimportant. They are less likely to be co-operative. If they're sitting, try instead to crouch down to their level, so you're able to talk to them as equals.
  • Improper mirroring. Copying isn't always appropriate. If they're shouting, don't shout back, no matter the provocation. Try talking in a softer voice so they have to stop to listen to what you are saying. Also, if the person is scared or anxious, mirroring their body language can exaggerate anxiety and fear, which may escalate the situation. Keep a calm demeanor, even if they are not. Eventually and without realizing it, many subjects will copy your body language.
  • Telling them they shouldn't feel a certain way. All feelings are real no matter how outrageous it sounds. Do not belittle what the subject is experiencing. For example, if a subject is hearing voices, don't say "no, you don't hear that." Instead, ask more about the situation: "How long have you been hearing them?" or "How do they make you feel?"
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