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Can Philadelphia transform its police force from 'warriors' to 'guardians'? This deescalation training could help

By William Bender, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in News & Features

"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 deescalation program, and also found that, for some recruits at the police academy, it "amounted to little more than lectures and observations."

Healy said the department, in response to the DOJ recommendations, developed its own reality-based training. And police shootings have been dropping, from 59 in 2012 to 12 in 2018.

Even so, Healy said, the department would be looking to incorporate ICAT concepts into its deescalation 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 deescalation advocates say the police CIT program, developed in Memphis, Tennessee, 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."


Training, of course, can go only so far.

In Philadelphia, modern deescalation 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."

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