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What Works in De-Escalation Training

Implementation Lessons and Taking It to Scale
Date Published
August 18, 2023

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) hosted four plenary discussions during the 2023 National Research Conference, each covering key priorities of Director Nancy La Vigne and investments by NIJ. The third plenary session focused on the Integrating Communications, Assessment, and Tactics (ICAT) training program for law enforcement.

The plenary brought together the entire life cycle of an evidence-based program from design and initial implementation to evaluation and, eventually, improvements to the program based on the research.

Led by Karhlton Moore, director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance, the plenary was a discussion among

  • Robin Engel, Ph.D., Senior Vice President, National Policing Institute
  • Maris Herold, Chief, Boulder Police Department, Colorado
  • Chuck Wexler, Executive Director, Police Executive Research Forum (PERF)
  • Justin Witt, Sergeant, Louisville Metro Police Department, Kentucky

Using Time and Distance to De-escalate

ICAT trains law enforcement officers to de-escalate and defuse “situations involving persons who are unarmed or are armed with weapons other than firearms, and who may be experiencing a mental health or other crisis.”[1]

Introducing the discussion, La Vigne pointed to the unique place of ICAT in the toolbox of evidence-based policing:

We often look to training when we think, “What should we do with police reform?” And yet we have very little information about what kinds of trainings can actually change behaviors in the field. This panel is different [because ICAT] has indeed led to behavior change in the field.

Describing ICAT’s beginnings, PERF Director Chuck Wexler recounted his experience attending a police recruit graduation in Scotland in 2015. He was struck by a contrast: While law enforcement agencies in the United States were still in turmoil over the fatal 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the protests it ignited over police use of deadly force, these new Scottish officers were embarking on their careers with no firearms on their belts.

Wexler wondered how this absence of firearms affects UK policing tactics, especially when officers are confronting a potential threat or unstable situation. After all, he reasoned, “a knife in Glasgow and a knife in Detroit is still a knife.” What could U.S. policing learn from how these Scottish officers trained to de-escalate conflicts without the option of deadly force?

The answer, in short, was “slowing things down using time and distance,” Wexler said. For decades, U.S. SWAT teams have been applying this philosophy to some of the most high-pressure situations faced by law enforcement. Now, ICAT would bring similar thinking to patrol officers. 

“Nobody Is Going To Die Tonight”

At that point, ICAT had the commitment of PERF, but its approach to de-escalation training faced enormous skepticism from the wider field of U.S. policing.

Chief Maris Herold put it simply, “[ICAT is] radically different from the patrol model that I grew up in.”

In traditional training, officers learn to take charge of a volatile encounter. They’re taught that responsibility for their own safety and the safety of their fellow officers is paramount, which often means entering an unstable situation with weapons drawn. The message, said Herold, is “make sure that you and your partner go home safe tonight.”

ICAT has a different emphasis. Rather than taking charge, officers learn to reframe their roles as active listeners who gather intelligence to resolve situations by building rapport without resorting to force. For Herold, the words “Nobody is going to die tonight” embodies ICAT’s approach. Nobody, meaning no one in law enforcement—and no civilians.

Officers going through ICAT training were concerned, however, with the unintended consequences that this shift might have. Dr. Robin Engel, a criminology researcher who has spearheaded efforts to evaluate ICAT, described officers’ fears as, “You’re going to teach us to hesitate, and you’re going to get us killed.”

What could help overcome these officers’ resistance to an approach so different from the one they’d been learning and practicing for their entire careers?

The answers lie in research and evidence.

Evaluation Is Not a One-Way Street

In 2015, after a white officer of the University of Cincinnati. Ohio, police killed an unarmed black motorist, the university put Dr. Engel in charge of overseeing and reforming its police agency. She realized quickly that she faced a major obstacle:

As an academic, I thought, ”I’m going to find the very best training that’s evidence-based, and I’m going to bring that to my cops and my community to make sure we get this right.” And when I looked around, I didn’t find any systematic evidence testing training in de-escalation or other law enforcement reform strategiesIt was that moment when I said, ”We need to be better.”

While searching for the most promising de-escalation training to adopt, Dr. Engel attended an ICAT session hosted by Director Wexler in Camden, New Jersey. With Dr. Engel was the University of Cincinnati’s new police chief, Maris Herold. In 2018, the two brought ICAT to the University of Cincinnati and collaborated on the first evaluation of the program with Dr. Engel’s graduate research associate, Gabrielle Isaza.[2]

Dr. Engel’s research moved next to Louisville, Kentucky, where, in 2019, Sergeant Justin Witt trained all of the police department’s patrol officers in ICAT as part of the first randomized controlled trial of the program.

Dr. Engel said of the project’s challenges,

It’s really hard to implement a randomized controlled trial design in an operational police agency. I can’t put you all in a test tube! Working with partners like Sergeant Witt who were willing to make sure that those experimental conditions were met is really unique and important.

Initially, Sergeant Witt shared both the field’s skepticism of ICAT and law enforcement’s broader reluctance to let researchers into their agencies. He was convinced, he said, that research meant “some outside group’s going to come in, they’re going to say ‘This is why you’re horrible, and this is how you need to do better,’ and we’re going to be treated like test dummies.”

Instead, Sergeant Witt and the Louisville police found themselves in dialogue with Dr. Engel and her team. Before the study results were published, Dr. Engel discussed with Sergeant Witt what was going right with ICAT and where the points of failure were. Together, they designed modifications to the training program to address those shortcomings.

ICAT Gets Results

According to Dr. Engel’s findings, ICAT produced significant changes not only in officers’ attitudes and knowledge about de-escalation, but also in their actual behavior on patrol. Officer uses of force and civilian injuries were each down by more than 25 percent after ICAT training. Unexpectedly, injuries to officers were down even more, by 36 percent.[3] Law enforcement agencies that had objected that ICAT would get their officers killed could now see empirical evidence pointing to the opposite outcome.

Dr. Engel’s team also found weaknesses in the ICAT model. Supervisors were not reinforcing the de-escalation paradigm that patrol officers learned in the trainings, which led to training decay—i.e., the weakening of ICAT’s impact over time. The centerpiece of ICAT, its critical decision-making model, was the fastest piece to decay—a major concern not just for the Louisville police, but also for the PERF team that was championing ICAT across the United States.

In Louisville, Sergeant Witt’s agency developed a supplementary program specifically to help align supervisors with ICAT. Additionally, at PERF’s ICAT facility in Decatur, Illinois, the standard program curriculum now includes a “Supervisor Snapshot” component designed to address the shortcomings that Dr. Engel’s research identified.

Reflecting on the research experience, Sergeant Witt highlighted the transformative nature of his back-and-forth, collaborate relationship with Dr. Engel. Their communication was key to building trust between the Louisville police and the research team. “You’re not going to have behavior change from a law enforcement agency until you develop some rapport to make us understand what is it that you’re actually trying to do,” Sergeant Witt explained.

Chief Herold concurred, adding that officers are much more receptive to evaluating and improving programs when researchers work alongside rather than apart from them. “We need researchers willing to come out and get in the trenches with us. Cops don’t mind the bad news as long as you’re out there with them.”

The next step in ICAT’s evolution is already underway. On May 17, PERF announced the opening of a dedicated ICAT training center on its Decatur campus, funded by $120 million from local philanthropist and former Macon County, Illinois, Sheriff Howard Buffet. Through the end of 2023, the facility is offering two-day train-the-trainer sessions at no cost. ICAT training materials are also available for free on the PERF website, as part of Director Wexler’s commitment to making ICAT available to as many law enforcement agencies as possible.

Meanwhile, with funding from NIJ, Dr. Engel’s team is working with departments in Indianapolis, Indiana; Cincinnati, Ohio; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; and Phoenix, Arizona, to replicate the ICAT evaluation and test the impact of modifications, such as lowering the number of training hours or splitting the training into many sessions over a longer time. Still, as their conversation on stage together at the NIJ National Research Conference showed, these different teams—trainers, researchers, and officers in the field—continue to share a common goal: making a meaningful difference in public safety by linking evidence to action. 

Date Published: August 18, 2023