Jamesville, NY — In the midst of a mental crisis earlier this month, Judson Albahm, 17, pointed a BB gun that police say looked like a real gun at them near Jamesville. Four officers opened fire, killing him.
It’s an all too common occurrence: a citizen with a mental breakdown facing down police officers trained for decades to counter resistance with force.
In this case, police were trying to corral Judson for the better part of an hour before the fatal encounter. His mother had warned that he had an airgun, not a real gun, and had threatened suicide by cop. Officers tried to reach him by phone, but got the wrong number at first. It’s unclear if they ever talked to him.
About 25 minutes after arriving, officers spotted Judson carrying what looked like a black handgun, police revealed recently. Seven minutes later, Judson was still on the run when civilian workers reported that he pointed the gun at them, police said. The chase continued, and 14 minutes later, Judson confronted police with the gun for the last time and was shot dead, police said.
What if the police response had ended the crisis before Judson pulled the airgun on officers or civilians? What if officers could have avoided shooting someone who had apparently wanted to die?
That’s the goal behind a new wave of police training, called Integrating Communications, Assessment, and Tactics (ICAT), which calls for a radically different approach to mental illness calls.
One form or another of ICAT has been adopted by the emergency response unit of the New York City police, the Buffalo police and more than 600 other departments across the country.
ICAT is the latest training in “de-escalation techniques,” a concept that’s been around for years. But ICAT stresses a fundamental shift in policing attitudes, built upon one bedrock: the sanctity of human life.
A 2020 study of ICAT training within the Louisville, Kentucky police department showed a 28% reduction in use of force, a 26% reduction in injuries to citizens and a 36% reduction in officer injuries over a 28-month period. More than 1,000 Louisville officers were trained by a national group advising police executives. And the study was sanctioned by the international police chief’s association.
Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick agreed that it’s time for ICAT training locally, pointing to eight local fatal police shootings in the past two years, most involving mental illness, drug or alcohol addiction.
“That’s an extraordinary number for this community,’’ Fitzpatrick said. “To have that many is something that needs to be addressed, to see how we can do things smarter and better.”
Fitzpatrick called ICAT a “positive program” and confirmed that such training would be folded into the ongoing police reform across Onondaga County.
The new countywide police reform plan dedicates eight pages to de-escalation and crisis intervention training (not specifically ICAT). Among its more ambitious goals is a dedicated “mobile crisis unit” and specialized units that pair mental health workers with cops, or send mental health workers alone to some non-violent calls.
Two weeks after Judson’s death, police issued a statement saying that they tried “de-escalation” at least three times in different locations after spotting the teen’s gun (discovered later to be a replica). Officers from three agencies were involved in the fatal shooting: Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office, DeWitt police and the state police.
Police declined to describe those specific de-escalation techniques when asked by Syracuse.com | The Post-Standard. But the techniques definitely were not from ICAT training.
The Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office, one of the three agencies involved in Judson’s death, has plans to implement ICAT training in the “next few months,” Sgt. Jon Seeber, a spokesman for the office, told Syracuse.com | The Post-Standard.
At the sheriff’s office, ICAT training will supplement the 12% of deputies who are trained as crisis intervention officers, as well as existing police academy de-escalation training and refresher courses that all deputies get, Seeber said.
The state police and DeWitt police each pointed to previous officer training in crisis intervention, which includes responding to people in mental crisis and role-playing scenarios that might arise.
De-escalation techniques are taught to DeWitt officers as part of various trainings that include recognizing mental illness, responding to active shooters and remaining calm in “critical” situations, DeWitt police spokesman Lt. Jerry Pace said.
Troopers receive crisis intervention training co-taught by the state Office of Mental Health, as well as additional training aimed at reducing use of force during crisis situations, State Police spokesman Beau Duffy said.
Neither DeWitt nor troopers indicated that they have planned specific ICAT training in the near future.
Everyone agrees mental health calls are among the most challenging a police officer faces. And they’re incredibly common, according to a survey co-sponsored by the New York State Association of Chiefs of Police. The survey of 355 law enforcement agencies across the nation concluded that 21% of police time and 10% of police budgets are spent on dealing with calls involving mental illness.
So what is ICAT training?
ICAT stresses a cerebral approach to police work, centered on ethics, values and human life. How do officers carry that out in a real-world situation involving a possibly armed person in a mental health crisis?
“Maintain distance, slow down and take cover,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), which developed ICAT and advises police administrators nationwide.
ICAT training attempts to change officer thinking about mental illness. Longstanding de-escalation and crisis intervention training teaches similar techniques, but isn’t so geared toward reshaping how officers approach their job.
Changing a cop’s mentality can be very difficult in situations an officer’s safety is at risk, said Robin Engel, an ICAT researcher and professor of criminal justice at the University of Cincinnati.
“Officers fear they might get killed out there if they hesitate,” Engel said, citing her research into the Louisville training.
But revamping how officers think in these situations is at the core of ICAT training, she said.
Some of the concepts include: Force is a last resort. Listening is more important than barking out orders. Recognize the person as someone suffering from mental illness, not as a criminal bent on wrongdoing. Focus on a peaceful outcome over compliance.
ICAT may be the latest and most-scrutinized of the latest police de-escalation trainings. But the general concept is widely accepted.
Keith Ross, who spent 10 years as a police academy trainer with the New York Police Department, said officers have long been taught the same thing in mental illness cases: establish communication, “slow the clock” and look for cover.
The key is doing everything possible to make it “less likely that he’ll take out the gun,” Ross said.
“Can you prevent these kind of situations from happening?” Wexler wondered of suicide-by-cop. “The first step is getting right information and training police in how to recognize suicidal situations. Then it’s communicating and keeping (officers) safe in approaching these situations.”
Ross agreed, but stressed that even the best training isn’t always going to work.
“Sometimes these situations have tragic results,” said Ross, who also teachers at NYC’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “I wish I could say that there’s 100% chance that this wouldn’t have happened, but I can’t… This is a shade-of-gray world.”
What about Judson?
De-escalation training comes with one big warning: It’s generally too late once someone points what appears to be a gun at officers or civilians.
That’s because a gun is considered the ultimate danger: deadly from distance, experts said. A gun requires an officer to act in a split second, without time for the kind of cerebral approach advocated by the experts.
But ICAT — and de-escalation training in general — is meant to help officers keep situations from escalating into gun battles, Wexler said.
From the get-go, communication is crucial, both Wexler and Ross told Syracuse.com | The Post-Standard. What did the 911 dispatcher know? What information was passed to responding officers? Did those officers all read the information before engaging with the call?
Related story: Dispatcher warned of Jamesville teen’s air gun, ‘suicide by cop’
Complicating matters is that three different departments — the sheriff’s office, state police and DeWitt police — all responded, bringing three different chains of command into the mix, the experts said.
In a perfect world, the 911 dispatcher sent out complete information, and all of the officers from all of the agencies read it, Wexler said. In that case, they would have all known Judson had threatened suicide by cop, he said.
That should impact the approach to the entire call, he said.
“When suicidal, (a person) can be a danger to themselves and to others, but mainly to themselves,” said Wexler, a former Boston police administrator. “You approach this situations with extreme caution.”
Then there’s the question of communicating with Judson and his family, Wexler said. Did officers approach Judson’s mother to find out all that they could about his condition? Were authorities able to talk to Judson directly? There’s indication from police scanner chatter that officers were frantically trying to call Judson’s cell phone — but had the wrong number at first. Did they ever get through to him?
“Your job should be to deescalate and diffuse the situation, not to overcome,” Wexler said of police. “How do I reach this person and communicate with him?”
Lastly, there’s the police tactics of when and how to approach Judson. Did police officers have any place they could take shelter? Was there a chance to form a perimeter and wait him out?
Ross said the physical surroundings are important.
“When officers encounter him, did they have any cover?” he asked. “Is this an open field where two people are pointing firearms at each other? Or could the officers take cover behind their patrol car?”
Wexler said officers need to keep the big picture in mind.
“If it feels like the police are making it worse, then the police have to make a determination on whether to step back,” Wexler said. “What’s the goal here? What’s the objective?”
In Judson’s case, his mother had called police for help after her son fled intervention by a mobile mental health crisis unit.
“What does the mother want?” Wexler asked. “The mother wants her child under control, but not at any cost.”
Staff writer Douglass Dowty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 315-470-6070.
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