The Need for Police De-escalation
Tuesday, December 14, 2021
by: David T. Sweeney

Section: Fall 2021

David T. Sweeney is a 34-year veteran police leader. He has spent countless hours training police officers in best practices and has investigated hundreds of cases involving use of force. He is the President of DT Sweeney Consulting, LLC, advising both defendants and plaintiffs on incidents of police use of force, pursuits, and wrongful death cases. He can be reached at (206) 833-6238 or at the company website:
A distraught mother calls 911 to report that her mentally ill son is threatening suicide. Two police officers are immediately dispatched to the scene. They meet the mother outside. “Thank God you’re here!” she says. “My son has been threatening to kill himself today. He grabbed a butcher knife and is holding it to his throat.” An officer asks, “Where’s he at, ma’am?” “The last time I saw him he was in the kitchen,” she says. “He’s been diagnosed as bipolar, and he needs help.”

The officers enter the darkened house and move down a hall toward the kitchen. As they get closer, the son steps into the hall with a 10” butcher knife held to his throat. The officers immediately begin yelling, “Drop the knife! Drop the knife! Do it now!” The officers move closer so that both of them are side by side in the hall. More orders are shouted. The son takes a step toward the officers and both open fire, killing him instantly. In their statements and on the stand, both officers say that the armed subject was a threat to their safety, and they discharged their weapons in order to protect themselves. Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989) holds that use of force can be reasonable based on the subject being an “immediate threat to the officers.” Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1 (1985) holds that an officer may use deadly force only if the officer has a good-faith belief that “the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.” Unlawful force violates the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable seizure. But could this tragedy have been avoided in the first place? A strategy of de-escalation might have prevented this unnecessary death.

What is de-escalation?

The Seattle Police Department defines de-escalation as follows: “De-escalation tactics and techniques are actions used by officers, when safe and feasible without compromising law enforcement priorities, that seek to minimize the likelihood of the need to use force during an incident and increase the likelihood of voluntary compliance.” (Seattle Police Department Manual 8.100, 2021).

The United States Department of Justice writes, “De-escalation is about changing the conversation on the use of force from what is legally permissible under Graham v Connor to what is the best outcome for the safety of the public and law enforcement personnel.” (U.S. DOJ, 2019).  “When circumstances reasonably permit, officers should use non-violent strategies and techniques to decrease the intensity of a situation, improve decision-making, improve communication, reduce the need for force, and increase voluntary compliance” (Ranalli, 2020 –
Simply put, how can a police officer still do what they need to do while keeping themselves and the public as safe as possible? De-escalation does not mean that police officers need to remove themselves from force situations. To do so can be dangerous to the community. Police officers still have a duty to serve and protect and the law allows officers the right to use reasonable force to protect themselves while protecting the public.

De-escalation Training

When training officers, I stress the benefits of using elements of time, distance, and shielding to safely accomplish the law enforcement purpose. Let’s look back at the scene I described at the beginning of the article, which is based on a real-life situation.

Time: If the officers used time as an ally, they could slow the situation down so that cooler heads could prevail. Time allows for calm thought, negotiation, and persuasion. Time allows the officers to formulate a plan. Time allows for negotiators or officers trained in crisis intervention to respond to the scene. True, the subject still might have a knife to his throat, but there was no need to rush in and force a confrontation.

Distance: The ability to keep a safe distance away from armed subjects increases officer safety. Distance is an officer’s friend. By staying out of harm’s way, the officer can still negotiate with the subject to persuade him to drop the knife. Being too close can get an officer hurt or killed, and certainly led to the increased threat level when the mentally ill subject stepped toward the officers.

Shielding: Police officers can increase their own safety and the safety of the mentally ill subject by utilizing shielding present in the house, such as doors, walls, and stairs. Tables, chairs, and other barriers can be put in place that make it harder for the subject to advance on officers. The actual house itself may offer shielding, as the officers negotiate from outside the home.

Other elements that could lead to a successful outcome may include additional officers, less-lethal weapons, team tactics, calling a supervisor to the scene, utilizing mental health providers, and efforts to determine why the subject is not complying. Is mental illness clouding his judgement? Does the subject speak a foreign language? Are they under the influence of drugs or alcohol? Do they have a developmental disability? If the public is not at risk, time, distance, and shielding can help police officers work through this problem and still get the subject the help they need.
De-escalation may not be appropriate when the safety of the public is at stake. If a domestic abuser is actively assaulting his partner, waiting to negotiate at the door while someone is being hurt or killed is inappropriate. Immediate action is necessary to protect lives. If a felony suspect is running from the police to get away, the officer should be giving orders to stop and chase after the suspect in order to protect the public.

De-escalation and the law

Currently, the U.S. Supreme Court still utilizes Tennessee v. Garner and Graham v. Connor when evaluating police use of force. “The reasonableness of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.” However, there continue to be challenges from Appellate Courts on the constitutionality of officers’ actions, along with decreased protections for officers relying on qualified immunity in order to shield themselves from lawsuits.

In Washington State, RCW 43.101.450 requires all current law enforcement officers to receive de-escalation training and periodic updates. RCW 43.101.455 requires periodic mental health training as well.

Attorneys representing municipal clients should be advised to be aware of the public’s demand for legal and ethical policing. As demonstrated by the shooting scenario, though officers may be using force that is legally allowed, the public desire for police legitimacy relies on officers also doing what is right. Municipal clients should be advised to adopt a police policy of requiring de-escalation when it is feasible to do so. Policy by itself will not yield results. Training in de-escalation techniques is the only way to change the police mindset to take all reasonable actions to preserve life, while still accomplishing their legal law enforcement purpose. “De-escalation plays a crucial role in enhancing a law enforcement agency’s legitimacy in the eyes of a community. This practice of using verbal and non-verbal skills to slow down the sequence of events supports the safety of both the public and of front-line law enforcement personnel. Although the techniques of de-escalation create time for first responders to enhance their situational awareness, conduct proper threat assessments, and allow for better decision-making, this practice often goes unnoticed by those within the agency and members of the community.” (U.S. DOJ, Community Oriented Police Services, 2019).


De-escalation policies and training are more than the latest police buzzwords. De-escalation helps to save lives, keeps officers safe, and reduces civil liability for the municipality and for the officer. Implementing de-escalation policies and training as best practices increases the legitimacy of the officer’s actions in the court of public opinion and in a court of law. Using time, distance, and shielding benefits the public and benefits the police. To protect human life is a police officer’s greatest calling. De-escalation helps make this possible.


Principles_on_Safe_Policing_and_Use_of_Force.pdf. (n.d.). Retrieved October 9, 2021, from

Seattle Police Department Manual section 8.100 (2021), retrieved October 9, 2021, from

Ranalli, M. 4 Principles of Law Enforcement De-Escalation. (2020, December 21). Lexipol.