June 26, 2021

Addressing the Defining Issue in Policing Today


Dear PERF members, 

Just over five years ago, in a classroom at the New York City Police Academy in Queens, PERF brought together 60+ cops from agencies across the United States, and some from Scotland and other parts of the UK. We sequestered ourselves for an entire week, looking at promising practices and new ideas on police use of force. We scrutinized video footage of officer-involved shootings, and tried to figure out whether the outcomes could have been different. We learned from the NYPD’s Emergency Service Unit about how they prepare for encounters involving people in crisis.

April 2016 meeting at NYC Police Academy

The mood in the classroom was intense, even combative at times. It wasn’t always easy reaching consensus. But out of that session came something very significant: the blueprint for PERF’s ICAT curriculum – Integrating Communications, Assessment, and Tactics.

This past week, PERF was back in that very same NYPD Academy classroom. This time, the purpose was to deliver two days of ICAT train-the-trainer instruction to a group of 40 NYPD trainers. On Thursday, Commissioner Dermot Shea announced that the NYPD was going all-in on ICAT, as a way to build on the use-of-force reforms the department has implemented over the years.

ICAT is now part of the basic recruit curriculum in New York, beginning with the class currently in the Training Academy.

And over the next two years, all sworn personnel will receive in-service ICAT training.

In many ways, it feels like we have come full circle with ICAT. PERF and our partners have been working for years, defining, developing, and fine-tuning the curriculum. Now ICAT is becoming part of the DNA of the largest police department in the country.

And that wasn’t the only significant development with ICAT. A week earlier, our trainers were at Rutgers University in New Jersey to deliver ICAT to police trainers from throughout the Garden State. Attorney General Gurbir Grewal has mandated that all 35,000 police officers in New Jersey be trained in ICAT, and PERF is facilitating the rollout.

New York City and New Jersey join a growing number of agencies around the country that are tackling head-on what remains the defining issue in policing today: use of force – in particular, what I refer to as “the 41%.”

Since 2015, the Washington Post has tracked fatal police shootings throughout the United States, compiling one of the most comprehensive databases of officer-involved shootings. The Post has consistently documented about 1,000 fatal police shootings each year.

Approximately 59% of these incidents involve suspects armed with guns. In almost all of these cases, police officers have limited options and almost no opportunity to de-escalate. When an armed robber comes charging out of a bank and aims a gun at citizens, or an active shooter walks into a grocery store and indiscriminately begins shooting people, no one questions the cops who return fire. It’s what the police are expected to do, and the public is grateful for their bravery and heroism.

But it’s some of the other cases — the 41% that don’t involve subjects with guns — that the community continues to find so troubling at times. These are instances involving people who are unarmed, or often they have a knife, or a toy gun, or a baseball bat, or rocks.

The subjects are often in a behavioral or mental health crisis and are acting erratically. Like when a mother calls the police because her son is off his medication and is threatening to harm himself or others. Or a suicide-by-cop situation when someone acts in a way that appears threatening, when in fact they are trying to get the police to shoot them.

Don’t get me wrong: many of these encounters are dangerous (which is why I wouldn’t want to send mental health professionals on their own to respond). But the threat is different from a situation involving a gun. When the subject doesn’t have a gun, often there are opportunities for the police to defuse the encounter and use options other than lethal force.

It’s when police don’t pursue those options or try to de-escalate, and end up shooting the person in crisis, that the public becomes disturbed or outraged. Most of these shootings meet the legal standard of reasonableness, but they often fail the community test of what seems appropriate and just.

So the question becomes, “Why do these shootings keep happening?” The answer is that many officers are simply doing what they have been trained to do. They are still using outdated tactics like the 21-foot-rule or the use-of-force continuum (which often leads to an escalation of force). These officers are not being trained to recognize the nature of the crisis, and to successful and tactically communicate with the individual.

The result is that in video after video, we see officers drawing their service weapons and shouting, “Drop the knife, drop the knife!” Unfortunately, these officers don’t practice communicating, which historically has been seen as a “soft” skill. They need the expanded and continued use of scenario-based training that ICAT provides.

Scenario-based training exercise at NYPD

ICAT is designed to give officers more options and new skills to defuse these difficult situations. And we have evidence that it works.

As I have reported before, a randomized controlled study of ICAT in the Louisville Metro Police Department (LMPD) found that ICAT training was associated with a 28% reduction in use-of-force incidents and a 26% decline in citizen injuries. This suggests that after the training, officers are using their communications and assessment skills, and are exploring options other than force, to resolve many encounters.

Significantly, the study also found that ICAT was associated with a 36% reduction in injuries to LMPD officers. When we first introduced ICAT in 2016, critics predicted that our approach would get officers hurt. But the exact opposite has occurred. The research demonstrates that doing the right thing and trying to de-escalate these situations makes it safer for everyone.

Today, almost 700 departments across the United States have implemented ICAT or are looking into the training. And that number will likely be growing in the coming months.

We know that a lot of agencies are interested in ICAT, but they can’t afford to send people long distances to receive the training. So later this summer, PERF will begin a series of regional train-the-trainer sessions in different parts of the country. We want to make it as easy and economical as possible for agencies to learn about and implement ICAT. More details on this national rollout will be coming soon.

Five years ago, when we spent a week in that NYPD classroom in Queens, use of force was the defining issue in American policing. It remains so today. But as more agencies train their officers in the principles of ICAT, I am optimistic that we can make a significant dent in “the 41%” of shootings, the ones that cause such pain in American communities.  And we can keep our officers safe, and our communities safe, in the process.

Weekend Clips are below. Have a great weekend.