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The United States has seen an uptick in violent crimes and experts believe this increase in violence could be tied to prolonged pandemic–related stress, recent incidents of racial injustice, a contentious election cycle, and civil unrest.

In October 2021, nearly a year and a half after COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic and millions sheltered in place to stop the spread of the virus, the American Psychological Association (APA) warned that the next global health crisis is a mental health pandemic — one that will persist even after the Coronavirus threat has been addressed.

Long-term physical and mental health is declining due to the inability to cope in healthy ways with the stressors of the pandemic. Americans report sleeping more or less than desired, increased alcohol consumption, delaying healthcare services, gaining weight, increased stress levels due to remote work, and worsened mental health — all classified by the APA as “serious health consequences.”

With these side effects of pandemic-related stress, another downside emerges: increased violent and aggressive behavior. The National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice studied crime in 34 major cities across the United States and found that aggravated and gun assault rates were also higher in the first quarter of 2021 than in the same period of 2020. A University of California, Davis study found that extra stress related to the pandemic caused by income loss and lack of ability to pay for housing and food has exacerbated the “silent epidemic” of intimate partner violence.

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Hospitals and healthcare workers are also bearing the brunt of workplace violence. During the pandemic’s first six months, 611 incidents of COVID-19–related physical or verbal assaults, threats or discrimination were directed toward healthcare workers, patients and medical facilities in more than 40 countries, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

While there is no silver bullet that can prevent violence entirely, security leaders suggest that knowing how to safely subdue a violent patient, customer, visitor, employee or student can go a long way in preventing violent incidents or other forms of aggression.

The Magic Recipe: Security Training

Knowing the right combination of strategies, techniques and methods to de-escalate a situation can avert tragedies, prevent violent incidents, reduce injuries and even repair or establish trust.

A vital component of a comprehensive targeted workplace violence prevention plan is de-escalation training, says Mark Reed, Director of Support Services at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital. “Safety is everyone’s responsibility. All stakeholders, including faculty, staff and administrators, should receive training. Train all staff to identify signs of aggression early on, de-escalation techniques, and practice,” he says. No matter how thorough or well-conceived, preparation alone won’t stop an emergency from happening if those involved don’t remember or carry out the response plan.

According to John Byrnes, Founder and CEO at the Center for Aggression Management, security personnel must be trained to recognize aggressive behavior, which comes with precursors or cues that allow security officers to recognize behavior that can lead to violent actions.

Some early warning signs of potential aggression include:

  • change in mood, level of anxiety and baseline behaviors,
  • concentration problems,
  • disorganized behaviors, uncontrolled or jerky gestures, eye contact or gaze aversion,
  • and what a person is saying and how he or she is saying it.

Most importantly, de-escalation training should be modeled on validated, science-based de-escalation frameworks, says Byrnes. “Train security officers and staff on proven structures for how and when to assess aggression, using mitigating techniques to limit the possibility of violent actions and intervening during a violent episode,” Byrnes explains. Through a holistic de-escalation process, conflict can be avoided.

Using Technology to Flag Warning Signs of Aggression

At the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital, Reed says 100% of all staff are required to undergo an annual workplace violence training program. The organization also leverages technology, such as sound intelligence, as a tool to help detect verbal aggression. The hospital’s use of sound intelligence has helped deter crime and reduce assault, Reed says. When the analytics software detects sound patterns associated with duress, anger or fear, the system sends a notification to staff via a visual alert or by triggering an alarm. When paired with video surveillance, security personnel are provided with full situational awareness, enabling them to respond quickly and appropriately to mitigate an incident before it escalates.

“It’s all about how you leverage people, processes and technology,” Reed says. “With early intervention, violence is preventable.”

Basic De-escalation Strategies

Security leaders suggest that violence prevention starts with remaining calm, listening and empathizing. Nothing escalates a stressful situation into a violent one faster than a poor attitude. “Never join them at an escalated level,” says Paul Timm, Vice President of Facility Engineering Associates and board-certified physical security professional. And this is by far the most challenging task, he says. How a security officer responds to someone’s behavior will directly affect whether the situation escalates or defuses.

Instead, focus on decreasing the emotional, behavioral and mental intensity of the situation. The less authoritative, less controlling and less confrontational approach security officers take, the more control they actually have. “Make the agitated person feel they are in control because they are already in crisis, which indicates they are feeling out of control,” Timm says.

A number of simple, yet effective measures can be implemented to allow an agitated person to feel in control. Timm, for example, teaches three non-threatening non-verbal strategies:

  • eye contact,
  • using a relaxed, well-balanced and non-threatening posture,
  • maintaining awareness and a safe distance.

Then, Timm teaches three verbal strategies that offer validation and foster a safe outcome:  

  1. Say, “I see you have a concern.” Use active listening skills — the foundation that supports security officers in changing the behavior of the agitated individual. Listen, and then acknowledge concerns.
  2. Say, “We can try to fix it.” Using this simple phrase can offer some hope to the agitated person. It also sends a message to the agitated person that you are listening, resulting in better rapport and de-escalation.
  3. Say, “Follow me.” Use only if necessary and safe to do so. Moving to a private area can help remove distractions, upsetting influences or disruptive people and help protect others from the agitated person.

During times of high stress, human connection and understanding are crucial to creating an empathic environment and go a long way in de-escalating a situation.

Hiring Security Officers

Another foundation for a violence prevention program is hiring the right security officers and personnel, who can help achieve a positive environment that is built on a culture of safety, respect, trust and social and emotional support. All of these tenets are critical to not only helping prevent violence, but also more easily achieving de-escalation.

“Not knowing your security officers can be just as dangerous as being unprepared,” Timm says. “Often, a security officer represents the company and is telltale of the company’s customer service.” Ultimately, the true measure of a security program’s effectiveness begins with hiring the best people, as they are the first responders and backbone of an organization’s security readiness.

There are, however, some factors to consider before deciding if a security officer is poised to handle workplace violence or aggressive incidents. It starts during the hiring process.

First, take into account that security officers are not a one-size-fits-all business anymore, but a candidate with a friendly and approachable manner is a must-have, especially when they are deployed in high-risk environments. Since they are often the first person the public sees upon entering a facility, security officers should be courteous and professional.

Then, to understand how they perform under pressure, particularly during a stressful situation that may require de-escalation, ask the right interview questions that assess emotional intelligence to ensure they are patient and fair-minded. To get a sense of who they are and how effectively they could respond to common scenarios that might take place during the workday, ask:

  1. What is your experience in handling conflicts?
  2. What security practices would you follow to lower risk?
  3. How would you deal with a visitor who refuses to follow safety protocols?
  4. How would you de-escalate a tense situation?
  5. How do you know when it’s time to call for law enforcement?
  6. What type of training or certifications do you have?

With contract security personnel, Timm recommends putting security officers through de-escalation training or requiring the contract company to provide the training.

In the end, honesty, integrity and empathy are priceless qualities for security officers and can be the key to preventing workplace violence and injuries and potentially saving lives.

Additional De-escalation Strategies

In a Security Solutions by Sector webinar, Jim Sawyer, Director of Security Services for Seattle Children’s Hospital, recommended the following best practices to de-escalate a tense situation:

Verbal best practices:

  1. Ask open-ended questions, such as “What can we do to make this work?”
  2. Ask, “May I help you?”
  3. Use “What” and “We” language, such as “What can we do to achieve an optimum outcome?”
  4. Ask if you can take notes.
  5. Use restatement for clarification.
  6. Get interpreter support.
  7. Lower your voice.
  8. Ask if they want to sit down.
  9. Ask for the aggressor’s ideas on resolution

Non-verbal practices:

  1. Stand at an angle.
  2. Maintain good eye contact.
  3. Have hands open.
  4. Tilt your head.
  5. Smile when appropriate.