On a mild November night in 2015, Camden police sped to Crown Fried Chicken at Broadway and Mickle, where a distraught man with a knife had just threatened to kill a customer inside.
When cops arrived, the 48-year-old man was outside, waving the knife, clearly a potential threat. Repeatedly, he refused police orders to drop his weapon.
The encounter could have been his death sentence in many cities in America — or, a few years earlier, in Camden itself.
Instead, police officers recognized the man was in the throes of a mental health crisis and backed off. An officer with a Taser, well over an arm’s length away, walked with him for several blocks, trying to break through to the agitated man, all of it captured on video.
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The officer fired his Taser, which didn’t incapacitate the man, but he eventually dropped his knife and was taken into custody. No shots were fired.
Five years later, in similar circumstances in West Philadelphia, Walter Wallace Jr., a 27-year-old father of nine with a history of mental illness, emerged from his family’s home holding a knife after police received a call that he was threatening his parents.
This time, two police officers, only a few years from the training academy, pulled their guns, shouted orders, and 41 seconds later fired 14 shots, killing Wallace.
“I understand he had a knife, and their job is to protect and serve,” Anthony Fitzhugh, a cousin of Wallace, said the day after the shooting. “By all means do so, but do not let lethal force be the means by which you de-escalate the situation.”
Investigators here may conclude that the officers followed their training and were justified in opening fire on Wallace.
But the Oct. 26 incident, which led to widespread protests and unrest, may result in the Philadelphia Police Department reintroducing more extensive de-escalation training — similar to what had been in place more than decade ago but was quietly discontinued.
Camden and more than 80 other police departments around the country use a version of the training known as ICAT (Integrating Communications, Assessment, and Tactics), and the results are promising. Developed by the Police Executive Research Forum, its techniques are designed for scenarios in which a person is armed with a weapon other than a gun, particularly those involving people in crisis or attempting “suicide by cop.”
ICAT teaches officers to create space, taking cover behind their squad cars or other barriers if possible, and buying time. Ideally, one officer takes the lead in speaking with a subject and uses open-ended questions — rather than multiple officers yelling commands down the barrel of their guns.
Some of the concepts are based on lessons learned in Scotland, where most police officers do not carry guns, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum.
“It dawned on me. They have situations there involving people with knives and 2x4s and rocks, but you never hear of police in the United Kingdom shooting people, unless they’re terrorists,” Wexler said. “In America, we train them that if someone has a knife, pull out a gun and bark orders.”
For someone with mental illness, Wexler said, “that might be the worst thing you can do.”
Philadelphia police receive some de-escalation training, but neither of the officers who shot Wallace had gone through the department’s crisis-intervention training, nor were they equipped with Tasers.
Commissioner Danielle Outlaw has said she is interested in bringing the ICAT program to Philadelphia. She had used it in Portland, Ore., while serving as police chief there before taking over Philadelphia’s department in January. Wexler said he has been in discussions with Outlaw following the Wallace shooting.
ICAT and other forms of de-escalation training have won over skeptics who initially were concerned that a less aggressive police response would put officers in harm’s way.
Mike Chitwood, a former Philadelphia officer, signed up all of his deputies for training in 2017 after he took over as sheriff in Volusia County, Fla. Last year, use-of-force incidents and injuries to his deputies were both down 50% from 2016, Chitwood recently told the Philadelphia Citizen.
“We’re onto something,” Chitwood said. “We have to continue what we’re doing.”
The most convincing evidence so far is a new study by the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the University of Cincinnati’s Center for Police Research and Policy. The study, released in September, found that ICAT de-escalation training in the Louisville, Ky., Metro Police Department resulted in 28% fewer use-of-force incidents, 26% fewer citizen injuries, and 36% fewer officer injuries.
In Camden, the police department started an in-house de-escalation training program in 2014 and helped develop what would become the ICAT program in 2016. All recruits now receive the training at the police academy.
Excessive-force complaints have dropped from 65 in 2014 to three in 2019.
“You have to be open-minded as an officer,” said Camden Police Chief Joseph Wysocki. “Policing has to evolve. ICAT is the next generation of training. It works and it keeps everyone safe — the officers and the citizens we encounter.”
Capt. Kevin Lutz, who oversees Camden’s ICAT training, said officers need to recognize — and avoid — “officer-created jeopardy” situations, when officers place themselves in danger unnecessarily and increase the likelihood of using lethal force.
“There’s a huge difference between an imminent threat and a possible threat, and we don’t want our actions to make that threat imminent,” Lutz said.
Instead of multiple officers immediately drawing their guns and yelling orders, Camden’s officers are taught to consider their options, including whether it is possible to use distance and negotiating tactics.
“That’s not how we were trained 10 years ago,” Lutz said. “We want everyone to go home. We want everyone to survive these encounters.”
Philly’s discontinued program
More than a decade ago, the Philadelphia Police Department was running a six-hour de-escalation training course that included videos of man-with-a-knife scenarios and emphasized keeping a distance, slowing down the encounter, and having one officer take the lead.
John MacAlarney, the course’s lead developer and main presenter, said it was similar to what ICAT teaches today, and thousands of officers took it. The course was developed partly in response to a nationally publicized 2000 incident in which Amtrak police shot and killed a homeless man at 30th Street Station.
“It was very comprehensive,” MacAlarney said in a recent interview. “Philadelphia was way ahead of the curve.”
But the training was phased out beginning around 2011 for reasons that MacAlarney said were unclear to him at the time. That, he said, was a “mistake that increased the risk of harm to police officers and citizens.”
“Mr. Wallace, his family, and the officers deserved better,” MacAlarney said.
Capt. Francis Healy, a special adviser to the police commissioner, said the MacAlarney program, from what he recalled, was discontinued because similar material was being handled by the department’s voluntary Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training.
In 2015, however, a Department of Justice report criticized Philadelphia’s de-escalation program, and also found that, for some recruits at the police academy, it “amounted to little more than lectures and observations.”
Even so, Healy said, the department would be looking to incorporate ICAT concepts into its de-escalation training.
After Wallace’s death, 911 dispatchers have begun asking all callers mental health-related questions in an effort to provide responding officers with more information and send officers with CIT training, when needed, Healy said. About 3,100 of the department’s 6,500 officers have gone through the city’s CIT training.
“I think the bad thing is the officers didn’t have all the information they could have had,” he said of the Wallace shooting.
Wexler and other de-escalation advocates say the police CIT program, developed in Memphis in the 1980s, can be effective but is not a substitute for more intensive training focused on tactics and critical thinking.
“CIT is OK, but it doesn’t meet today’s standards,” Wexler said. “Today, you have to think not just about communication, but tactics and certain situations where it’s OK to back out completely and start again. You don’t always have to win.”
Changing the culture
Training, of course, can go only so far.
In Philadelphia, modern de-escalation tactics will need to be accompanied by a culture change throughout the rank and file, a shift from a “warrior” to a “guardian” mentality of policing, like what has taken place just across the river in Camden, to some national acclaim.
Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, whose district includes the West Philadelphia neighborhood where Wallace was killed, said the initial response from the Fraternal Order of Police was not encouraging.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with these police officers who had to use lethal force to keep themselves and the community safe,” read the FOP statement after Wallace’s death.
Gauthier noted the statement did not mention Wallace or his family. Nor did the police union seem to consider that such situations might be handled any other way than with a gun.
“Stuff like that is not helpful,” Gauthier said. “There’s training, but there’s also a culture that really needs to be changed.”
FOP president John McNesby declined to comment on the department’s training procedures.
Gauthier said she is hopeful that Outlaw will bring the ICAT program to Philadelphia.
“I’m intrigued by it,” she said, “because it is a training that emphasizes the sanctity of life for everyone involved.”