The dark streets of Baltimore were wet with rain as Officer Angel Villaronga walked down the sidewalk toward the man with a knife. In the street, a half dozen cop cars were parked askew, their red and blue lights flashing as officers stood, hands on holsters, ready to react.
All Villaronga knew was that the man was unresponsive to calls from police to “put the knife down” and, in fact, wanted them to shoot him. “You’re going to have to get it from me,” he told them. “I don’t want to go nowhere unless it’s in a body bag.”
Despite the knife, Villaronga didn’t see an immediate threat; he saw a man who was in a mental health crisis. And that alone, the officer believed, did not call for use of force. So he walked closer to him — within hearing distance — and started to talk.
“Why do you not want to drop the knife, man?” Villaronga asked, engaging him with personal questions: How old was he? Did he have kids or anyone close to him? What brought him to this point? “Officer Villaronga, by the way,” he told him. “You can call me V.”
As the two engaged in dialogue, Villaronga told the man that he and the other officers were there not to hurt him but to help him.
“It’s not your job,” the man replied. “A man has got a knife in his hand. He’s threatening, saying he’s gonna hurt someone out here, and all of a sudden y’all don’t do nothing? He’s got a knife in his hand. It’s a threat! It is!”
In the eyes of the law, the man was right: Using force on a person with a knife could have been justified — even if that force was deadly. But to those trained in the concept of de-escalation, or who, like Villaronga, understand that those in crisis sometimes need a different tack, it’s not the only option.
As the list of people killed at the hands of police grows longer, and calls for reform in policing grow more urgent, there has been a push for agencies to adopt policies in de-escalation — the ability to defuse situations without using force by deploying tactics such as time, space, dialogue, and critical thinking. But there has been pushback as well, with some law enforcement leaders criticizing the policy as one that could get officers killed.
A new study on the effects of de-escalation training, however, turns that thinking on its head. The groundbreaking, first-of-its-kind research demonstrates that de-escalation training produces significant changes in officer behavior, including a decrease in the number of use-of-force incidents and injuries to citizens, as well as a substantial drop in the number of injuries to police officers.
“When we talk in de-escalation about time, distance, and cover, that’s interpreted by some officers as don’t rush in, retreat, hesitate,” said Robin Engel, lead researcher on the study. “It’s really important for officers to see and understand that de-escalation tactics are not going to increase their risk of injury but will literally make them safer if deployed properly.”
Villaronga wasn’t surprised by the study’s results on de-escalation because he’s seen first-hand how the concept saves lives.
For nearly 20 minutes, the Baltimore officer tried to engage the man with the knife, following him when he took off down the sidewalk toward the city’s main thoroughfare. In the street, the armed officers moved alongside them.
When the man finally stopped and spun around toward Villaronga, the officers moved in, guns out, ready to shoot, echoes of “drop the knife!” ringing out. Worried that another officer would fire, Villaronga motioned and told them to go across the street. Then he turned his attention back to the man with the knife.
“Look, I can talk to you. I’m 38 years old; I can relate to you, bro,” Villaronga told him. “There is not a thing in this world that I have not dealt with that you probably have dealt with.”
Then, as Villaronga added, “At the end of the day, I have kids to go home to,” the man held out the knife to Villaronga, turned around, and put his hands behind his back.
The situation had been de-escalated and no one got hurt. The man was taken to a hospital for a psych evaluation. And Villaronga was able to go home that night to his wife and four children.
“It’s all about communication,” said Villaronga, recalling the September 2017 incident. “We don’t talk enough sometimes, or if we do, we talk a minimum amount of time and we give up. You can’t just give up because the situation is not going the way you want it to.”
And that’s de-escalation in a nutshell.
The Research Gap
For Engel, the beginning of her journey studying and implementing de-escalation began with a tragedy.
In July 2015, Samuel Dubose, an unarmed Black man, was shot in the head and killed by a white University of Cincinnati police officer during a minor traffic stop. Amid the outcry that followed, Engel, a professor of criminal justice at UC, was brought in to take over the agency. Part of what she discovered during her top-to-bottom review was that the police division’s use-of-force policy required an overhaul and its officers needed proper training in de-escalation.
Before jumping in blindly, the researcher sought out studies on de-escalation training and its effectiveness in policing. She found nothing — only studies on similar training in the fields of nursing and psychiatry, and while generally positive, they were weak in research design.
Still, Engel knew something needed to be done at the UC Police Division, so she enlisted the de-escalation program ICAT — Integrating Communications, Assessment, and Tactics — to train her officers. The program was run by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), one of the most respected police organizations in the country.
The ICAT training taught first-responding police officers how to defuse critical situations involving people who are unarmed or armed with weapons other than firearms. It provided options for dealing with those who may be experiencing a mental health crisis and aren’t thinking reasonably. And it was anchored by a Critical Decision-Making Model, a way of thinking through situations rather than rushing in and using force.
Engel saw positive results from the training — including a change in attitude among UCPD officers and an increase in their self-reported use of de-escalation tactics on the job — but she still felt stymied by the lack of rigorous evidence to support whether such training was actually effective and could reduce use-of-force incidents.
“Of course, we are all excited and feel good about trainings that change officer attitudes,” Engel said, “but at the end of the day, if we are going to have safer police-citizen encounters, that has to translate into changes in behavior.”
Which is how her latest study came to be. With funding from Arnold Ventures, Engel’s research center — the International Association of Chiefs of Police/University of Cincinnati Center for Police Research and Policy — dove into a comprehensive study, which included a modified version of a randomized control trial, the gold standard in research, to determine the effectiveness of de-escalation training. The Louisville Metro Police Department in Kentucky and ICAT program agreed to be test cases.
Though having his police department put under a microscope for a year could have been disconcerting, Louisville Sgt. Justin Witt knew the study could be a game-changer and was happy to take part — not only to ensure that what his officers were doing in the classroom correlated to their experiences on the beat, but because of the broader implications.
“Realizing that we were going to build the data for other agencies to be able to point to a program and say, ‘This is effective,’ it could have large implications on our profession and on how officers deal with subjects on the street,” Witt said.
But like other police leaders who have brought de-escalation training to their departments, Witt knew there would be resistance from some Louisville officers. After all, it was something the ICAT program had experienced from its very inception.
It was 2014. Michael Brown, an unarmed Black man, had been shot and killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri. Unrest was spreading across the country as citizens marched and protested and sought answers. And Chuck Wexler was in the United Kingdom for a leadership program, witnessing how most police in Scotland didn’t even carry guns on their belts as they interacted with the community.
“I turn to this constable, and I said, ‘Wait a minute, how do you deal with someone with a knife or a rock or a two-by-four or a screwdriver?’ — all of those things that police have shot people over,” recalled Wexler, Executive Director of PERF.
The constable replied, “No problem” — he had his baton and pepper spray, which, if communicating with the person didn’t work, could be used to protect himself and resolve the situation.
Wexler thought about it. Why, he wondered, are police in the United Kingdom able to deal with a person armed with a knife without having to use deadly force, whereas in the United States, we would? “That was what hit me,” Wexler said. “Because a knife in Glasgow and a knife in Detroit are both still knives.”
When he brought this thinking back to the United States, however, he was met with dismissal by police executives who said you couldn’t compare the countries, especially because of the vast number of people who carry guns in America. And with that threat out there, they said, police officers deserved to be able to go home at the end of their shifts.
But Wexler couldn’t stop thinking of the Michael Browns and Eric Garners and Walter Scotts — unarmed Black men killed by police who would never go home again. He went back to Scotland, this time with 25 police chiefs and other senior leaders in tow. He studied what SWAT teams and hostage negotiators in New York City do to resolve volatile situations. And he consulted with hundreds of resources — police professionals, civil rights advocates, researchers, psychologists, and the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
That cross-disciplinary group of stakeholders who helped form the tenets of ICAT “have influenced the content of the training in ways that are really important,” said Christy Lopez, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center and Co-Director of Georgetown’s Innovative Policing Program who was among those consulted.
From the input it had gathered from those stakeholders, PERF released a report on the 30 Guiding Principles on Use of Force — the precursor to ICAT. Among the guidelines, which questioned a lot of conventional thinking in policing and urged law enforcement agencies to adopt de-escalation as a formal policy, was the understanding that “the sanctity of human life should be at the heart of everything an agency does.”
The condemnation by police groups and unions was swift. Such guidance, they said, could get officers hurt or killed.
“I think that the fact that it got an initially negative response from many people in the field of policing was in many ways a sign of its success at challenging the status quo in terms of how one uses force,” said Lopez, who worked in the U.S. Department of Justice from 2010 to 2017 and led the team that investigated the Ferguson Police Department following Brown’s death. “I thought that was important, because from what I was seeing, there was not enough emphasis on critical-thinking skills, too much emphasis on this ever-present danger that could just happen in time, and there was a sense that you had no control over the frequency and severity of the danger. … And that is often a recipe for overreaction.”
Wexler often returns to a Washington Post statistic when defending the use of de-escalation. Of the average 1,000 fatal police shootings a year, 40 percent don’t involve a person armed with a gun, and about 20 percent involve people in crisis.
If de-escalation training and policy were implemented in the 18,000 police departments across the country, Wexler said, “we could potentially save between 200 and 300 lives a year.”
In October 2016, the first ICAT training guide was published, and over the past four years, representatives from more than 600 police agencies have attended training sessions, with dozens of agencies fully implementing it.
When Cambridge, Massachusetts, Police Officer Cameron Deane was told in 2017 that he and his partner would be headed to Minnesota to learn more about ICAT — so they could in turn teach their department — Deane scoffed.
The officer, who had nearly 20 years of law enforcement experience, thought, “You gotta be kidding me.”
He had heard about PERF but never looked into the organization and assumed it was made up of “a bunch of police administrators who don’t work the street anymore” and that ICAT was going to be just another training program that was jumping on the bandwagon of de-escalation after a string of high-profile police shootings.
At the training, he and his partner climbed up to the balcony of the auditorium, where no one else was sitting, and “were like the two old guys in the Muppets ready to tear this apart.”
But not even halfway through the presentation, the two looked at each other. His partner admitted, “This is pretty good,” to which Deane replied, “You’re not kidding.”
What really changed Deane’s opinion was how the training was being presented — by people who have been in the kinds of situations being discussed, including Baltimore Officer Villaronga, who showed the body-cam video of his encounter with the man with the knife and talked officers through it.
“They really nailed it,” Deane said of ICAT. “This is a program where you can actually show people sort of the process that good cops go through — why they don’t make some of the mistakes that other officers might make. It’s because they use this particular thought process.
“With de-escalation, what I was afraid of was that this was going to be a program that was going to tell us, ‘You can do this every single time,’ or at least that’s how they were going to sell it,” Deane said. “I felt like this was going to be a ‘Let’s appease the general public, let’s appease the current people who are dissatisfied with police and police services’ by thinking that we can make something happen that cannot happen on every single call.”
But that’s not what ICAT says. In fact, it makes it clear that the training doesn’t cover incidents with firearms and that sometimes, like when a person with a knife is running at an officer, the immediate threat requires a use of force to quell it.
What the training does do is encourage officers, when they can, to slow down and think of their options.
“In the academy, it was, ‘You need to hurry up and save somebody’; everything is hurry, hurry, hurry,” Deane said. “I think there’s a time to act immediately and there’s a time, most of the time, when you don’t need immediate action and you have at least a few seconds to make an evaluation.”
So while the Cambridge partners spent their plane ride to Minnesota deriding ICAT, they spent the plane ride home talking about how they could bring it to their agency.
‘Why Haven’t We Done This Before?’
ICAT training is typically 12 hours of instruction, and most often, someone from a police department is chosen to take a “train the trainer” course or attend a conference on ICAT; that person then customizes the training for their department and implements it.
A critical component of the training involves the use of case studies: watching body-cam or citizen videos from past incidents and talking through what officers might have done differently. That’s not something many officers are comfortable doing — but ICAT teaches why it’s necessary.
“It’s really hard to criticize your fellow officers, because we don’t want to be criticized ourselves,” said Lt. Mike Bruno of the Monterey Police Department in California, who took the ICAT training in 2017 and became a trainer for his department. “So we say, ‘Well, I wasn’t in their shoes,’ or ‘I don’t have all the information.’ But then how do we get better?”
The videos include those that ended peacefully and those that ended in gunfire and death.
“The prevailing thinking in policing used to be, ‘We don’t want to Monday morning quarterback’ what happened, but today, we turn that on its head,” Wexler said. “We say, ‘Look, here’s a situation, what were the options?’”
In talking through those options, officers are asked to “spin the model” — to think of the tenets of the Critical Decision-Making Model. In a situation where a mentally ill man is armed with a knife, instead of repeatedly shouting “drop the knife!” and approaching with guns drawn, the thinking might look something like: I have someone with a knife. What do I know? What are my options? Do I think I can handle this myself? Have we been to this location before? Who called us? What can they tell us about the situation? How are we going to approach this? Let’s talk through a Plan B if this doesn’t work. When we get there, let’s use time and distance. Let’s communicate with them. Let’s listen to them. And let’s leave our gun in its holster.
For officers who have spent many years in the profession, de-escalation can be a huge culture shift.
When Bruno was in the police academy in 2005, his training on how to handle such calls was a three-step process: I’m going to ask somebody to do something. If they don’t do it, then I’m going to tell them to do it. If they still don’t do it, I’m going to make them do it.
There wasn’t a big push on recognizing if a person was under the influence or had a mental illness that meant it takes them longer to process information, Bruno said. “It was thought of as, you’re a police officer, you have the badge, you have the uniform, they need to listen to you, and if they don’t, you’re within your right to use force; you have legal justification.”
ICAT teaches officers that just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s necessary, and that slowing down and not rushing to wrap up a call so they can move on to the next one could be the difference between life and death. “It’s retraining everybody [to think] what’s the rush? If we spend two hours with this person and someone else has to wait two hours for a theft report, that’s just the way it is,” Bruno said. “If they don’t get hurt and we don’t get hurt, that’s successful for everybody.”
Former Camden, New Jersey, Police Chief J. Scott Thomson said that most of his officers who were skeptical before taking the de-escalation training became advocates after they saw what the training entailed. Then the question became not “Why are we doing this?” but “Why haven’t we done this before?”