Temperatures are rising, and I’m not talking about the weather. Barely a day goes by without another tragic story to digest, from violent protests to shootings to suicides. It’s natural to feel overwhelmed. It’s normal to want to run from all of it, feeling helpless to chip away at the scope of the challenges. Jillian Peterson hopes we’ll fight that impulse. The assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at Hamline University sees in us — we, the parents and teachers and social workers and volunteers — a mighty, and largely untapped, force to bring down the noise, defuse tensions and reclaim a humanity she knows is at our core, and also at the core of those in crisis. All we have to do is bravely step up.
Q: When I heard you’d be co-hosting a de-escalation training for the general public Sept. 12 at Hamline University, my initial reaction was, “Don’t make me go!” It seems so scary. Is this a common reaction?
A: Of course. But I compare learning de-escalating skills to learning CPR. That, too, is something we all should know how to do. Once you are trained and comfortable in basic skills, getting someone through a moment is very doable. All my research on violence and mass shootings is coming together and I’m saying, here’s something we can actually do together.
Q: What are the most common scenarios, or “moments” as you call them, where we might be called upon to use such skills?
A: Our focus is on suicide prevention, and how to de-escalate that. But de-escalation is helpful anytime a person’s current situation exceeds his or her ability to cope. I volunteered with a crisis hotline in New York, and we were taught that a person in crisis is a balloon ready to pop. All you have to do is let out a little air.
Q: When did it occur to you that we all have the potential to step up?
A: A police department reached out to us for training after seeing a 300 percent increase in crisis calls over three years. We wanted to help them. It morphed into a realization that we can be teaching more people than just the police.
Q: Such as?
A: Parents, teachers, friends. Some airlines have done de-escalation training for flight attendants. Librarians have, too, as have customer service representatives. And lawyers. Thinking about times when your situation exceeds your ability to cope, there are few examples that compare to being involved with the criminal justice system.
Q: Might you offer a few examples of de-escalation techniques?
A: First, calm yourself. Second, manage the environment. That might mean turning off the TV, or changing the lighting. If they’re sitting, you sit. And active listening is essential.
Q: What if none of that works?
A: Sometimes, you have to realize that it’s not working. That instead of eye contact being de-escalating, it’s escalating. Sometimes, because of different cultures, ages or genders, you’re just not the right person. You might call 911, but a good alternative is to call a mobile crisis services team. These teams include licensed mental health professionals. It won’t be as fast as 911, but it’s an incredible resource.
Q: Can you share an example of success? That would be nice to hear.
A: We just did a follow-up with a police department. An officer walked into a domestic situation with a kid and a parent and it was getting very tense, very elevated. The officer walked up to the kid and put his hand out and introduced himself by his first name. It was just odd enough to diffuse the situation. It just took that one moment. The kid was surprised. The officer was surprised, too.
Q: You’ve talked about more sweeping efforts to change a potentially dire trajectory, as well.
A: Some police departments are co-responding to calls with social workers, or they’re following up when the person is not in crisis. Some departments are establishing regular relationships with group homes, again when there’s no crisis.
Q: Are there certain people who are just innately better at calming down someone who might hurt himself or others?
A: We know from the research that female officers are better at de-escalation.
Q: Why might that be?
A: Some people would argue that it’s more innate in us and also that it’s more socialized into us. Our play is less aggressive. We learn from each other. But some people, male and female, just don’t need training. We know, for example, that the more exposure you’ve had to people with mental illness, such as in your family, the more natural you are at helping. People with a higher trait of conscientiousness are more natural at de-escalation.
Q: You’ve worked with men facing the death penalty in New York. You’ve been a trial consultant, a forensic psychology trainer and you’ve just been named director of Hamline’s Center for Justice and Law. How do you stay optimistic when immersed in some of the darkest places humans inhabit?
A: This work makes me more optimistic, not less. I’ve met people who have done the worst crimes and they are totally broken. But, sometimes, it wouldn’t have taken all that much to change their path. When terrible things happen, we don’t always reflect on what role we could have played. This is something we can all do. We can all let out a little air for someone.