April 3, 2021

Getting Officers To “Step Up and Step In” 


Dear PERF members, 

As I’ve reported before, PERF’s ICAT training (Integrating Communications, Assessment, and Tactics) was recently evaluated by researchers from the University of Cincinnati led by Dr. Robin Engel. Using a randomized control study design, Robin and her team looked at the impact of ICAT among officers in the Louisville Metropolitan Police Department.

Their findings were remarkable.  ICAT was associated with a 28% reduction in use-of-force incidents, a 26% decline in citizen injuries, and a 36% drop in officer injuries. Their research is the first known study to demonstrate significant changes in officer behavior as a direct result of de-escalation training. 

As encouraging as those results were, the study identified two areas where more attention is needed: (1) the role of sergeants in managing critical incidents, and (2) officers’ understanding and use of the Critical Decision-Making Model. The CDM is at the heart of ICAT’s approach to de-escalation, but the Louisville study found that there was a need to further explain to officers how the CDM works and provide them with examples.

In many ways, these two issues are related. ICAT and the CDM are all about getting officers to think more critically, in real time and often during tense circumstances. But in order to become critical thinkers, officers need the support of their sergeants, including the freedom to independently assess situations and make tough decisions on their own. This is especially important when sergeants aren’t at the scene to help guide their officers, or when the officers’ decisions go against some of the cultural norms of policing, such as never second-guessing a fellow officer in public.

Sergeants also need to know that a big part of their role is to help coach officers in this new model of thinking and decision-making.

This past week, a group of experienced ICAT trainers came together in Decatur, IL at the Macon County Law Enforcement Training Center to analyze these issues and develop some practical guidance to strengthen this new approach. We want to make critical decision-making a dynamic and useful tool for officers, not just an abstract idea.

Our goal was straightforward, but complex: How do we get officers to think differently and act differently in situations that are beginning to escalate, often because of the actions of fellow officers? How do we get cops to step up and step in – to turn around tense encounters before they become so chaotic that force may be needed?

I’m not talking about getting officers to intervene in situations like the arrests of Rodney King or George Floyd. Those were obvious cases of excessive force, and the other officers on the scene clearly had a duty to intervene and stop the force once they witnessed it.

I’m talking about something different, about going upstream in the decision-making process, before situations escalate and officers even contemplate using force. I’m talking about cases when other officers’ tactics are counterproductive or just plain wrong, but no one wants to say anything.  

Or when there are a number of officers but no supervisor on the scene, and no one steps up to lead.

Or situations when backing up and coming up with a Plan B is a far better option than pressing forward and trying to win at any cost, but no one is willing to suggest that alternative.

We want our cops to think and act differently in these types of situations. But all too often, it seems the culture of policing gets in the way.

The police culture says you back each other up. And that’s a good thing, and critically important when officers are in trouble.  But the culture also says that you never question, contradict, or embarrass a fellow officer in front of others. And that can lead to bad outcomes, especially if other officers are engaging in tactics that you know will make an already challenging situation even worse.

Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about. In 2019, PERF developed a protocol on dealing with suicide-by-cop situations. In reviewing videos of actual encounters, we saw how officers haven’t always recognized the dynamic that is unfolding. So an officer may be pointing a firearm and barking commands at someone who is suicidal and holding a knife. As police psychologist Dr. John Nicoletti told us, pointing a weapon at a potentially suicidal person will increase his or her anxiety and only exacerbate the situation.

Another officer on scene may recognize that this approach is making the suicidal person more anxious. How do we get that officer to direct his fellow officer to back away and lower their firearm?  That is the type of situation where we need officers to “step up and step in.”

Of course, this type of intervention can be especially difficult when the other officer has more experience or is of a higher rank. There are times in policing when you need to question authority – respectfully – but the culture says otherwise.

 I have talked about this before in the context of analyzing use-of-force and other incidents after the fact – Monday morning quarterbacking. But here, I’m talking about officers having the confidence to step forward in real time, as events are unfolding. And about having the skills to stop poor tactics and redirect situations well before they spiral out of control.

It’s not just the culture of policing that sometimes gets in the way of good decision-making.  It can also be the structure of police agencies themselves.

From their earliest days, police departments in the United States have followed a rigid, hierarchical rank structure akin to the military. In many situations, that model serves an important purpose. When you have an active shooter or other major crime in progress, you need someone in charge, making decisions and giving orders. And you need people who will carry out those orders, without question, in order to neutralize an immediate threat.

But there are other times when a more collaborative, less bureaucratic approach is needed – where officers are given the opportunity to think critically and the freedom to make decisions that may go against the traditional way of doing things.

This is especially important, I think, for the new generations of people entering the policing profession. These individuals often want to know not just what they’re supposed to do, but also why they are doing it.

At a time when we’re trying to develop independent critical-thinkers and problem-solvers, I fear that our traditional approaches to police hierarchy, culture, and decision-making sometimes get in the way of good, effective and ethical policing. Our work in Decatur this past week is intended to help overcome some of these hurdles.

PERF will be adding a new module to ICAT that will make the concept of “Step Up and Step In” something that officers can understand and use.

The new module will underscore the key role that first-line supervisors must play in developing their people and working together to defuse critical incidents. As we embark on a national rollout of ICAT later this year, I am confident that this addition to the curriculum will help agencies build on the success that departments such as Louisville Metro have already achieved.

Weekend Clips are below.  Have a good weekend.