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Responding to hostility
Oct. 13, 2017


DELANO, MN – Effective communication is key to de-escalating hostile situations, Sgt. Brian Johnson told about 30 people during a Monday evening event at the Delano Fire Station.

“Communication is so important,” said Johnson, who works for the Wright County Sheriff’s Office. “Sometimes, one word miscommunicated can be catastrophic.”

Johnson offered a number of suggestions for how to deal with crisis, though he acknowledged there is no magic bullet.

“This is not a simple solution type of thing,” Johnson said. “You’re not going to walk out of here and be able to fix any issue you might have.”

As a law enforcement officer, Johnson has been certified as a crisis intervention team officer and provides training for fellow officers, county employees, and community members. He first developed the training following requests from reserve officers.

It is especially important for law enforcement officers to be trained in de-escalation tactics.

“Not only do we communicate with people, but we deal with people who are going through all kinds of different things,” Johnson said. “ . . . We learn to get very good at how to de-escalate and how to deal with people. Sometimes, no matter how good we are or how many tools we have in our toolbox, it just doesn’t work.”

Part of the problem arises when people are irrational.

“One of the things I tell people is it’s very hard to try to figure out why someone who’s not rational is acting some way when you’re rational,” Johnson said. “ . . . There could be a lot of reasons why they aren’t acting rational.”

Possible reasons include loss of employment, loss of freedom, illness, death, loss of status, interruption of an intervention, and loss of health.

When those things happen, a crisis can occur. Johnson defined a crisis as any situation in which a person’s ability to cope is exceeded. Crisis intervention is a short-term, time-limited intervention.

How does one respond to crisis?

Johnson quoted Theodore Roosevelt as saying, “Do what you can with what you have where you are.”

“A lot of times, you may not have anything,” Johnson said. “It may just be you, so all you have is your brain, your voice, and your ears. You’re going to listen, talk, and you’re going to think. That’s what you’re going to use to get you out of that situation or help you deal with that situation.”

Empathy is an important tool to use when responding to hostility.

“One of the things we deal with is letting them know we care,” Johnson said. “ . . . People in general know when you’re pretending to care and they know when you care.”

He suggested stepping out of one’s comfort zone and into the other person’s hypothetical shoes.

Johnson said there are several ways to gain compliance, including physics, force, restraint, trust, empathy, and understanding.

“We try to stay away from using force and restraints, and we try to focus more on influence: getting people to trust us, showing empathy, and showing understanding,” Johnson said.

When dealing with crisis, there are four priorities: personal survival, problem resolution, harm reduction, and damage control.

There are several roles a person may assume in dealing with crisis: observer, reinforcer, problem solver, mediator, scribe, negotiator, enforcer, rescuer, friend, and expert.

How are threats identified?

It may be how someone is talking, what they are saying, the tone of their voice, or their behavior.

“What’s suspicious? Anything that seems out of the ordinary,” Johnson said.

A combination of a person and a situation results in their behavior, Johnson said. While a person may not be able to be changed, a situation can be altered to result in better behavior, he said.

“What are we going to do? We’re going to monitor their behavior and assume a calm, non-threatening manner,” Johnson said.

He said yelling at someone who is yelling does not work. Rather, staying calm is more effective.

“Sometimes it’s hard to be calm, but it’s hard to continue to argue with someone if they’re calm,” Johnson said.

While staying calm, a person should introduce him or herself, speak slowly and evenly, and consider the other individual’s personal space.

Listening before talking is recommended.

“Allow someone to ventilate,” Johnson said. “If someone is angry and frustrated, they want to get that out. Sometimes, you just have to let them do that.”

Personally, Johnson waits until a person is done venting and then asks what they would like to happen.

Telling the truth is also important.

“One thing I’ve learned in law enforcement is people do not like to be lied to,” Johnson said. “They want the truth, but sometimes in small doses.”

He cautioned those in attendance to consider that the person they are dealing with may be under the influence of alcohol; drugs; fatigue; stress; or emotions, such as anger or sadness.

Sometimes, dealing with a distressed individual can turn into a critical incident, such as a shooting or a stabbing.

Responding to such an incident can be boiled down to three words: run, hide, fight.

Running to safety is always the best solution, Johnson said.

If running is not an option, hiding is recommended.

“The last thing, the third thing we want you to do if you’re face-to-face with a threat is to fight,” Johnson said.

He acknowledged that talking about and dealing with crisis are not easy things to do, but they are necessary.

“It’s a terrible thing to have to be talking about,” Johnson said. “ . . . The best thing we can do is be prepared.”

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