October 31, 2020

PERF Trending: ICAT Is Looking Like a Game-Changer

Good morning,

What a week it’s been. COVID is surging in most states, everyone is bracing for possible disruptions during the election next week, there’s been another crisis for policing in Philadelphia….

If you can set all that aside for a moment, something good happened in the policing profession this week:  A scientific research study found solid evidence that something in policing works!

Full disclosure: The study is about PERF’s ICAT training program, so if this seems self-serving, I take the blame. But please hear me out, because I think this has big implications.

Let’s quickly start at the beginning.  In December 2016, senior members of the Louisville Metro Department traveled to New Orleans to attend an ICAT kick-off meeting that PERF organized. The Louisville contingent went home and decided to implement ICAT.  Chief Steve Conrad called me and asked if I could send Tom Wilson, one of the architects of ICAT, to observe their pilot training. Tom did that, and offered some advice on how to tweak the training.

For Louisville, probably the best decision they made was to select the right people to teach ICAT. They chose highly respected officers who had credibility in the department. That was very significant in conveying the importance of the program.

As Louisville Metro was about to implement ICAT department-wide, Robin Engel said she wanted to evaluate it.  Robin is a Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Cincinnati, and she also serves as Director of the IACP/UC Center for Police Research and Policy.  So she is well-known in the world of police chiefs.

Now, as many of you know, a police chief needs a certain level of confidence to welcome a researcher into their department to evaluate the effectiveness of a program. It can take a lot of work to facilitate the research, and you don’t know what the findings will be.  And too often, the results are that the police program being studied had no impact, or the results were statistically insignificant.

So I give the Louisville Metro PD enormous credit for opening themselves to a rigorous evaluation on the highly charged topic of use of force. We need more research in policing, because we need to know what works, and what doesn’t work.

Robin and her team were able to study the impact of ICAT using a form of randomized control study, which she describes as “one of the strongest research designs we have.” And her findings, announced this week, were stunning:

First, officers who received the training liked it. More than 80% of the officers said it was useful and they would recommend it to others.

More importantly, Robin found that the ICAT training was associated with a 28% reduction in use of force by Louisville officers, a 26% decline in citizen injuries, and a 36% reduction in officer injuries.

In other words, ICAT had a positive impact not just on officers’ attitudes about de-escalation, but on their behaviors as well. Robin said this is the first known study to demonstrate significant changes in officer behavior as a direct result of de-escalation training.

Of course, we were extremely gratified to have this evidence that ICAT not only reduces use of force and reduces injuries to citizens, it also actually makes officers safer. 

I think it’s important to look at the issue of officer safety in a new way. Some police unions, and some trainers who have spent decades teaching traditional concepts such as use-of-force continuums and the 21-foot rule, continue to say that de-escalation techniques put officers’ lives in danger. So it’s important that this solid research study demonstrated that officer injuries were reduced when officers were trained in ICAT.

But I think this tells only part of the story. Today’s officers who are involved in a controversial use-of- force incident face many types of consequences. The toll it takes on them psychologically and on their professional lives is enormous. They are immediately put on administrative leave, and then a lengthy process of investigations begins, both criminal and administrative. They are often attacked on social media, and may be subjected to civil lawsuits. The process is overwhelming, and it’s not something any officer would want to go through.

If we can prevent one of these shootings from happening, we not only save the life of a citizen, but also the well-being and career of an officer.  We need to understand that officer safety involves more than making sure officers go home safely at the end of their shift.

We need unions and traditional police trainers to recognize that the world is changing, and we have found a way to help ensure that everyone goes home safely at night – both physically and psychologically. The mental health and wellness of officers should be viewed as part of officer safety.

We won’t be able to prevent all use-of-force incidents, but we should rethink the incidents that can be slowed down and handled better and more safely, like the suicidal person with a knife, or the mentally ill person with a baseball bat.

Nothing is more toxic to a police department and its relationship with the community than a use of force that looks unnecessary or disproportionate.  These incidents have been tearing cities apart for months, following the death of George Floyd in May.  And before that, going back to Ferguson, Missouri, and before that, to Rodney King, and to so many others. 

So if ICAT can reduce uses of force in a department – and thanks to Robin Engel and her team, we have evidence that it can – it can be much more than a training program.  It can help prevent these incidents that ruin a community’s trust in the police, and damage the reputation of police agencies nationwide.

We have an opportunity to significantly change use of force – the most controversial aspect of policing – and we should embrace it.

Changing Culture, Too

One more point:  Something else happened this week that really brought it home for me that ICAT is more than a training program, it’s something that can change a police department’s culture and approach to other issues.

I was interviewing Joe Wysocki for a PERF Daily Critical Issues Report.  Joe is retiring as Chief of the Camden County, NJ Police Department.  I think most people are familiar with the story of how Scott Thomson and his successor, Chief Wysocki, transformed the police in Camden from a troubled department facing huge crime problems to a department that today has strong support in the community and has driven down crime.

I was asking Joe to describe the various changes he made as chief, and he said this:

I don’t think we’ve done anything bigger than introducing ICAT and de-escalation. That’s probably the biggest change I’ve ever seen in policing. We have 100% buy-in here at our department. Officers see that they’re protecting themselves and also protecting the people they’re encountering.

We had a protest this weekend. We identified what the protesters were upset about, and were able to call an audible to remove something they were upset about. It completely de-escalated the situation, and the march went on successfully.

De-escalation is just so important in policing today. It gives you so much credibility in the community.

We think of ICAT as a training program, but it’s also about changing police culture. Consider the key terms in ICAT and the PERF Guiding Principles:   Sanctity of life. Proportionality.  Critical thinking and decision-making. Teamwork. Slowing things down, rather than rushing toward split-second decisions. Having a Plan B. Repositioning. Communication. Better tactics.

At its foundation, ICAT is a training program. But for agencies that embrace it, ICAT is much more. ICAT teaches officers how to take a more thoughtful, organized approach to handling all sorts of situations, and how to realize their potential as problem-solvers and communicators.

For PERF, our challenge is to try to get ICAT out to the 18,000 police agencies in this country, many of which are small and may not be able to afford training.  As soon as conditions with COVID allow, PERF will be holding regional conferences across the country and in Canada, at no cost to the agencies, other than their cost of traveling to the venue. We are grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for helping PERF to do this. As many of you know, Howard served as Sheriff in Macon County, Illinois, and he has taken a strong interest in developing best practices on use of force. Look for more information on this in the future.

And in the meantime, we will be holding virtual meetings to share with you the experience of departments that have implemented ICAT. 

I’d love to hear your perspectives on this