De-Escalation Training Helps Set Higher Policing Standards in Camden County


By teaching officers how to defuse critical incidents and creating a culture of de-escalation tactics, the Police Executive Research Forum hopes to make officers safer and restore public trust.

By Matt Skoufalos | July 13, 2017

NYPD Emergency Service Unit officers demonstrate communication skills and safety tactics in a scenario-based training exercise at the NYPD Police Academy. Credit: PERF.

As a nation of more than 300 million people, the United States sees some 63 million police contacts annually, according to the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF).

Not all of those incidents devolve into high-profile use-of-force cases, but making sure those encounters end peacefully for everyone involved is a national priority. To get there means teaching police how to calm volatile situations without resorting to deadly force.

On Thursday, some 205 officers took the PERF ICAT (Integrating Communications, Assessment, and Tactics) course at the Camden County College Blackwood campus. Officers from as far away as California and Toronto, Ontario, Canada visited the seminar, which was hosted by the Camden County College Police Academy.

The academy is the first in New Jersey to make de-escalation training part of its mandatory basic curriculum, said Camden County spokesman Dan Keashen.

“The idea here is not to rush in,” Keashen said. “It’s not a burning building. And ultimately, taking a second or two to be more thoughtful in your reaction will ultimately save lives. There’s a benefit to being able to step back, create a perimeter, and be able to ensure the safety of everyone involved.”

Keashen said that de-escalation training like ICAT and the Camden County Police Department (CCPD) autism sensitivity protocols helps demystify encounters with people who may at first glance be deemed dangerous because they aren’t understood.

“If we have an individual who might have a behavioral health issue or a person that has cognitive challenges, this won’t be out of the ordinary,” Keashen said. “It won’t be a unique situation for officers to have to work with that individual. They can take the steps that make them safer, and make the individual they’re working with safe.”

Officers at the ICAT Training at Camden County Community College hailed from throughout the country and within the county. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

‘Negotiate, communicate’

Setting the tone for officers must be a leadership priority for things to change, said PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler.

One example of best practices he cited was the pep talk the Houston SWAT commander gave his officers before dispatching the unit:

“We are not going to kill someone today here in Houston. Do you understand?”

“They slow things down, they talk, they negotiate, they use shields,” Wexler said. “In some cases they’re going to have to take someone’s life, but they work as a team. Time, distance, cover. Negotiate, communicate.”

ICAT is modeled after the protocols of the emergency services unit of the New York City police department. Since many communities don’t have such specialized units, Wexler said it’s incumbent upon all police to incorporate its foundational concepts into their patrol units.

“We call it repositioning yourself,” he said. “I don’t want you to have a SWAT team. I want you to see the principles.”

ICAT guiding principles include a focus on the sanctity of human life, proportionality of response, and building on the standard of “objective reasonableness” established in the 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision Graham v. Connor.

“This is the accepted law of the land, but we feel as professionals in policing that we have an obligation to provide departments with policies, training, tactics, that go beyond the Supreme Court decision,” Wexler said.

“If that’s all you do, and then you engage in car chases through busy areas and some third party gets killed, or you shoot at a vehicle…”.

Wexler also described how progressive policing can have dramatic effects on preserving the safety of everyone involved. After New York prohibited police from firing on vehicles, it halved such shootings within two years.

“When they looked at the reasons why the officers were shooting, they put themselves in a position where they stand in front of a car, barking orders,” Wexler said.

“You had maximum feasible misunderstanding,” he said. “The officer thinks, ‘I’ll take out my gun, he’ll stop.’ The kid thinks, ‘He’ll get out of the way.’

“In 1972, NYPD shot at civilians 950 times,” Wexler said. “Probably 15 officers died that year.”

Since the no-shooting-at-cars policy was enacted, “I know of no case in New York [City] where a police officer has died as a result of this,” he said. “How many civilians lived because of that policy?”

The change was also an exercise in proportionate justice, he said.

“Nobody goes to jail over a stolen car,” Wexler said. “So why would you kill a kid over a stolen car? If you’re going to take someone’s life, it’s got to be for a reason. That police officer who kills that 17-year-old, his life is never going to be the same.”

Gloucester Township Police Chief Harry Earle. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

‘Slowing things down is life-changing’

Incorporating ICAT training into departmental policy has played an important role in cultural change in the Gloucester Township Police Department, said its chief, Harry Earle.

In conjunction with dashboard- and officer-mounted cameras, having protocols emphasizing de-escalation has paid dividends, Earle said.

“It’s a different approach to policing, and some of your non-emergency calls may have to stack,” he said.

“We look at [ICAT] today as launching new ways going forward. It all works; it’s not perfect, but there are some great pieces in there.”

Pine Hill Chief Chris Winters said that embracing critical incident training (CIT) has led to a significant drop in use-of-force incidents and pressed an important shift in individual thinking deeper into the departmental culture.

“The biggest piece is getting everybody to realize that time is on our side,” Winters said. “The mental peace of our officers coming in and slowing things down, slowing themselves down…it is life-changing.

“I think that comes with confidence from the training; from the tools that we provide them,” he said. “To be able to control themselves, they control the scene. You can’t have one without the other.

“The only way they’re able to build that confidence is through the proper mindset, the proper core values of the department being pushed out, what’s expected, and the tools and the support from the agency to make sure that they have everything they need to take those steps,” Winters said.

“They may be in a situation where it’s not possible, but we want to give them every possible tool to do that.”

Camden County Police Chief J. Scott Thomson. Credit: Rob Smith.

‘Progress can be made anywhere’

CCPD Police Chief J. Scott Thomson offered hard numbers on the impact of the training.

Thomson said it’s resulted in a 30-percent reduction in use-of-force incidents and a one-third decline in civilian allegations of excessive force by CCPD officers.

Of some 7,900 calls in which the public reported that someone was known to be illegally carrying a firearm, officers made 1,134 arrests and only discharged their service weapons five times.

In three of those incidents, Thomson said police were engaged with gunfire when they arrived on scene, and in two others, they were ambushed “in a suicide-by-cop situation.

“The overarching objective of de-escalation culture is one in which everyone goes home at the end of a shift,” he said; “not just the officer, but the person in crisis who we’re dealing with.

“This is not a check-the-box training,” Thomson said. “This is about developing the culture of de-escalation. We don’t want people to do this just because. They’re engaging in this because this is our identity of who we are.

“I’d rather have my officers reflect more on being a member of the peace corps than a special operations officer in the military,” he said.

If ICAT training works in Camden City, the chief said he thinks it can be part of a generational shift in policing nationwide and beyond.

“The level of intensity of violent crime we deal with is on the level of any other extremely challenged community in the country,” Thomson said. “If we can make progress in Camden, it’s promising that progress can be made anywhere.”

Georgetown Law Professor Christy Lopez, who’s investigated police actions in Ferguson, Chicago, and Newark for the U.S. DOJ believes that ICAT training can help restore faith in the criminal justice system. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

‘All about trust’

Georgetown Law Professor Christy Lopez, who’s led U.S. Department of Justice investigations into policing behaviors in Ferguson, Missouri, Chicago, Illinois, and Newark, New Jersey, agreed.

“There are a lot of hard things in policing,” Lopez said. “We don’t know exactly how to do it right.

“This is not one of the hard things,” she said. “This is one of the easy things that everyone should be doing. There’s no downside to training officers to de-escalate these situations.”

Lopez believes that New Jersey is “in a perfect position” to make ICAT training mandatory for all police departments, as states like South Carolina and Minnesota have done, because its attorney general has direct supervision over all police departments in the state. She praised PERF for making its training materials available for free, and said it was “almost discouraging that it hasn’t caught fire more than it has.

“There’s so many terrible shootings that could have been avoided if officers would have had access to this training,” Lopez said. “It’s not just having to tell those families that those lives have been lost. Some police groups don’t focus on the effect that it has on officers when they have to take someone’s life. You should be wanting to do it for the officers as well.”

ICAT training as part of a broader culture shift in police de-escalation can also help restore public faith in the U.S. justice system, Lopez said. She wouldn’t mind bringing judges into a similar training to help close the knowledge gap around officer-involved shootings.

“The law is definitely part of the problem here,” Lopez said. “The courts have found legally principled a lot of shootings that should not be viewed as reasonable under any interpretation of the Fourth Amendment. If a shooting is clearly unnecessary, it should not be considered reasonable.

“[Judges are] appropriately hesitant to second-guess officers, but too often that falls into an inappropriate hesitation to provide full protection of the law to civilians in this country,” she said.

NJ Attorney General Christopher Porrino. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

New Jersey Attorney General Christopher Porrino agreed.

Porrino, who also attended the training, said de-escalation tactics are “all about trust.”

He also cited recent statewide rule changes that require police-involved shootings to not be conducted by the departments involved to reduce conflicts of interest.

“Now if there’s a police-involved shooting in Gloucester [Township], the investigation is handled by the county prosecutor’s office,” Porrino said. “If there’s a conflict that causes Camden County [Prosecutor’s Office] to not be the right agency, we’ll send it elsewhere.

“You’ve got to eliminate the conflicts so people will be confident in the outcome,” he said. “In every one of those cases, my office in Trenton takes a look at it from scratch. All that is designed to set up an environment where we can have, hopefully, more confidence and better trust in the outcomes.”

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