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Evidence Shows When Researchers Work Alongside Cops in the Field, De-escalation Training Is Implemented and Effective

by Douglas Ankney

Traditionally, police officers are taught to take control of a volatile encounter, ensuring the safety of all officers present by approaching an unstable situation with weapons drawn. The underlying message is: “Make sure that you and your partner go home safe tonight.”

De-escalation training, by contrast, teaches law enforcement to focus on “slowing things down using time and distance,” said Chuck Wexler, Executive Director of Police Executive Research Forum (“PERF”). De-escalation emphasizes that instead of taking charge, officers are to become active listeners, gathering intelligence “to resolve situations by building rapport without resorting to force.” The underlying message is: “Nobody is going to die tonight.”

However, officers taking de-escalation training were overwhelmingly concerned with what they perceived was an unintended consequence of this shift in emphasis. Criminology research professor Dr. Robin Engel described their fears as: “You’re going to teach us to hesitate, and you’re going to get us killed.” Engel determined that she was “going to find the very best training that is evidence-based, and I’m going to bring that to my cops and my community to make sure we get this right.”

Engel attended an Integrating Communications, Assessment, and Tactics (“ICAT”) training program sponsored by Wexler. Eventually, Engel and Wexler brought ICAT to Louisville, Kentucky, where Sergeant Justin Witt was required to train all of the Louisville Metro Police Department’s patrol officers as part of the first randomized control trial of ICAT.

Witt admitted that he was at first convinced the 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, Witt and the patrol officers found themselves in dialogue with Engel and her team of researchers. They collaborated, and before publishing the study’s findings, they tweaked the training after observing what worked and what didn’t.

According to Engel’s report, “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.”

Witt opined, “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.”

University of Cincinnati Police Chief Maris Herold added, “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.”   




Writer’s note: While ICAT and similar de-escalation training programs show promise, the results from Louisville may have been skewered by the fact that the police were simultaneously under Department of Justice investigation and the public spotlight stemming from the police killing of Breonna Taylor.

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