Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP partner Jonathan Aronie speaks at an Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement training session for the Philadelphia Police Department. Aronie, the court-appointed monitor for the New Orleans Police Department under a U.S. Department of Justice consent decree, helped establish a program to teach police to intervene when they see fellow officers engaging in misconduct. Active bystandership training has since been brought to hundreds of agencies around the country.
What can the officer do next?
A peer intervention program aims to empower officers to step in when they see something that isn't right — and delves into the social science and psychology of why people don't always intervene.
The Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement, or ABLE, project is a partnership between the Center for Innovations in Community Safety at Georgetown University Law Center and Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP, and it has grown to include more than 350 police agencies in 42 states over the past few years.
Courts around the country have established an officer's "duty to intervene" when they see someone's rights being violated, and many police departments now have policies spelling out that obligation.
But "people in general tend to overestimate their willingness and their ability to intervene in a tough situation," said Lisa A. Kurtz, who directs the ABLE project."So it's really important to give people the skills they need to be able to step in and intervene effectively, and also to be willing to accept those interventions."
Interest in the principles of active bystandership soared in the wake of the 2020 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin. A federal jury later found that the three other officers at the scene violated Floyd's constitutional rights by showing deliberate indifference to his medical needs, and that two of them also failed to intervene to stop Chauvin's use of unreasonable force.
Since launching the year Floyd was killed, ABLE has continued to add participants. They include some of the nation's biggest police departments, as well as small agencies and campus police forces.
ABLE focuses on three "pillars": preventing misconduct, avoiding police mistakes, and promoting officer health and wellness.
Bob Masterson, a King City, California, police captain who is trained to teach the ABLE curriculum, said the program helps address the stigma of "being the snitch."
"You don't want to be branded as the outcast," Masterson said. "And I think [ABLE] puts the tools in the officers' hands" to instead say, "'I don't need to be an outcast, but I can be a positive influence.'"
The program draws upon the work of Dr. Ervin Staub, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst whose research has focused on bystanders, helping behavior, altruism and group violence. Staub has credited bystanders with helping him survive the Holocaust as a young Jewish child in Hungary.
While refusal to speak out about fellow officers' misconduct is known popularly as "the blue wall of silence," law enforcement isn't the only profession where hurdles exist when it comes to reporting misconduct, said Dr. Joel Dvoskin, a forensic psychologist and member of the ABLE board of advisers.
"That's why it's hard to find doctors to testify against other doctors," Dvoskin said.
Similar programs have been used in the medical field to reduce surgeon mistakes and in the aviation industry to prevent pilot errors, noted Jonathan S. Aronie, ABLE's co-founder and a Sheppard Mullin partner. The concept also underpins a program called Green Dot that aims to reduce sexual and dating violence among high school and college students.
ABLE grew out of the New Orleans Police Department's peer intervention program, called Ethical Policing Is Courageous, or EPIC. For the last decade, Aronie has been the court-appointed monitor for the New Orleans department, which is under a consent decree with the federal government after a U.S. Department of Justice investigation found a pattern of unconstitutional policing.
As protests swept the nation after Floyd's death, EPIC leaders were inundated with calls from police agencies, and in response, ABLE brought New Orleans' model to a national level. ABLE is funded by corporate sponsors and offered to participating agencies free of charge.
Both programs have officers examine the barriers to intervening, known as "inhibitors." There are many of these: fear of being ostracized or retaliated against; not wanting to cross boundaries such as rank; and diffusion of responsibility, in which people who are part of a group feel less personal responsibility and assume others will take action.
The program teaches participants about several social science experiments dating to the 1960s and '70s involving bystanders.
"To me, the social science behind this is the most powerful piece," said Paul Noel, the chief of police for Knoxville, Tennessee, where ABLE training was rolled out this year. "This is really about why people make certain decisions."
Noel played a key role in implementing the EPIC program in New Orleans, where he served in a range of leadership roles before taking over the Knoxville department last year.
During the eight-hour ABLE course, officers learn different practical tactics to intervene, depending on the situation. For example, an officer who notices their partner getting agitated during an arrest could step in to say, "I got this." There can also be subtle physical cues officers can employ, such as a hand on the shoulder.
"There is no one-size-fits-all formula that will work in every situation," said Scot Huntsberry, an ABLE instructor who is a retired FBI agent and now works as an investigative specialist for Sheppard Mullin.
The initiative doesn't just address individual actions, but also strives to help "create an environment and a culture within law enforcement that makes an intervention acceptable," according to Gregory Hanna Jr., a national instructor for ABLE.
Participating agencies must demonstrate that they have community support and meet certain criteria to be accepted into the program. These include the availability of a wellness program for all personnel, and "a strong anti-retaliation policy to ensure interveners are not punished, targeted, or otherwise ostracized," according to the ABLE website.
As a former commander of internal affairs for the Metro Transit Police Department in Washington, D.C., Hanna says he saw situations where he believes misconduct might have been prevented if an officer had spoken out.
Gregory Hanna Jr., who is retired from the Metro Transit Police Department in Washington, D.C., teaches a class about active bystandership to the King's County Sheriff's Office in Seattle.
"If just a fellow colleague had stepped up or had intervened" Hanna said, "it could have prevented a lot of administrative investigations and saved a lot more careers."
ABLE also focuses on how active bystandership can tie into mental health. Participants, for instance, explore ways someone can intervene when colleagues facing personal challenges like divorce begin showing changes in their behavior.
The officer wellness component is key, said Lt. Amanda Tapia of the Albuquerque Police Department, which has undergone reforms after a DOJ investigation in 2014 found a pattern of excessive force.
"When you have nothing left in the tank, that's when we don't give our best," Tapia said. "If we can make sure we're taking care of each other, we can best fulfill our commitment to the community."
The ABLE model has drawn interest from the insurance sector as well. The Utah Local Governments Trust, an insurance pool for municipalities, has partnered with the project to train law enforcement across the state.
"The goals of ABLE align very much with what we do at the insurance pool here, and that is to reduce loss and injury and harm to other people," said trust CEO Steven A. Hansen.
Hansen said the active bystandership approach has the potential to reduce claims against police, in turn saving tax dollars.
While there isn't hard data on whether the program is working to deter misconduct, proponents point to anecdotal evidence as well as academic research from Staub and others showing active bystandership "can be taught and learned." Kurtz said research into ABLE's impact is ongoing.
Ray Kelly, a longtime community organizer in Baltimore, said he thinks it might be tough for officers to follow through on the training when on the job, but he believes it's an important concept "if we're ever going to have the community policing models that we dream about." The Baltimore Police Department – also under a consent decree after a DOJ probe found unconstitutional and discriminatory policing – started using the EPIC program under former police commissioner Michael Harrison, who was previously the superintendent of police in New Orleans.
"Implementation is challenging because you are essentially going against the blue code," said Kelly, who is a member of a civilian charging committee that reviews Baltimore police internal investigations, as well as the Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission. But "if we are looking for officers with a community policing mindset, then they have to be willing to hold officers who are still in that oppressive type of mindset accountable when they break the rules."
Masterson, the police captain in King City, said he believes ABLE reflects a change in the conversation in law enforcement.
"When I first came on, it was, 'Shut up, keep your mouth shut, keep your head down, just do your job and move on,'" said Masterson, who has been in policing 37 years. "With that attitude, you can see the cycle of things. It just seems like we kept repeating the same mistakes nationally in law enforcement … Finally in the last 10 years, we've kind of turned introspective in saying, 'What are we doing wrong that the same issues keep popping up?'"
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--Editing by Lakshna Mehta.