The Myths and Misunderstandings about De-escalation and Use of Force in Policing


When it comes to public perceptions of policing, discussions are often guided by terminology that may not be entirely clear to the public. Two common misconceptions involve the terms “de-escalation” and “less-lethal” force. As retired Lt. Frank Borelli describes in Officer Magazine (May 2022), de-escalation in policing is usually understood by the public as using communication only, without any show of force. However, the definition of “escalation” is an increase in the intensity or seriousness of something, an intensification. Therefore, “de-escalation” would be the opposite: a decrease in magnitude, intensity, or seriousness.

The goal of de-escalation in policing is for officers on the scene to successfully decrease the magnitude, intensity, and seriousness of the situation so that less force, or even no force, is ultimately needed. However, successful de-escalation does not mean that no force is ever needed. Successfully de-escalating a combative or dangerous situation often requires some force. When someone is in a “fight or flight” mindset, communication alone may not have the desired effect. Their rational brain is flooded with physiological and psychological noise that is intent on survival, not conversation. Force may be needed to contain the situation and to de-escalate the encounter successfully.

An officer arriving on a scene in uniform is often enough to “escalate” a situation. Giving verbal commands may also be considered an escalation since the end goal is compliance, not therapy or restorative justice. As Borelli says, “a use of force is any action we take to modify or change someone’s behavior.” Successful de-escalation often requires initial escalation and a show of force, something that is deeply misunderstood by the public.

Likewise, “less-lethal” force is a misnomer. “Less-than-lethal” force may be used during an incident in an effort to avoid having to use deadly force. But, less-than-lethal force is a use of force, not an absence of force. Unfortunately, there will always be times when lethal force is the only tactic available to neutralize a threat and protect the public.

Use of the terms “de-escalation” and “less-than-lethal” force requires a nuanced understanding, and training for de-escalation needs to be at least as nuanced as our understanding of the terms used. MILO training systems offer simulation-based scenarios involving diverse and varied community members in community arenas, from routine traffic stops to active shooters in schools to mental health crisis interventions with individuals dealing with substance and mental illness. Branching scenarios that adapt in real-time allow officers to hone their skills in responding to individuals in these situations.

MILO solutions go beyond simulation. Over and over again, trainers and instructors report that the real value in their integrated, immersive de-escalation simulation training is in the opportunities it creates to teach officers to identify opportunities to de-escalate and to appreciate the ramifications of each use of force option.

MILO simulation systems allow officers to experience complex and nuanced scenarios to hone their responses, ultimately resulting in outcomes requiring no, or, at most, “less-than-lethal,” force whenever possible.



This blog was reviewed for accuracy by MILO Cognitive Advisory Board member Richard G. Schott, an Independent Police Auditor in Fairfax County, VA, serving over 27 years in the F.B.I.