‘Hey, don’t do what you’re doing’: Teaching cops to say something if they see something

St. Paul police are launching an 'active bystander' training program this fall, while Minneapolis is exploring it

A police officer in riot gear stands in front of protestors.
Protesters breach a line of police atop the Crescent City Connection bridge, which spans the Mississippi River in New Orleans on June 3 during a protest over the police killing of George Floyd in May.
Gerald Herbert | Associated Press

By now, many are familiar with the chilling details of the cell phone video that captured George Floyd’s final moments: Derek Chauvin kneeled on George Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes as three of his fellow Minneapolis police officers looked on and bystanders screamed that Floyd was dying.

A couple of times, Thomas Lane, a rookie, suggested the officers should roll Floyd on his side to let him breathe. Chauvin brushed off Lane’s suggestion, and the other officers at the scene stayed silent. 

The footage has prompted many people to ask: Why didn’t the officers on the scene do more to prevent Floyd’s death? 

Amid growing calls for police reform in the wake of Floyd’s killing, law enforcement agencies around the country are rethinking their expectations for officers who witness misconduct by fellow officers. Some departments, including St. Paul, are planning to train officers to speak up when they see a colleague do wrong.

The goal is to create a culture where police officers like Lane are expected to intervene with colleagues to prevent misconduct and mistakes. 

‘Nonintervention is already a learned behavior’

Jonathan Aronie isn’t surprised Lane didn’t more actively try to intervene. 

Aronie, a Washington D.C. attorney who was appointed as monitor of New Orleans’ troubled Police Department in 2013, said most people who become police officers in this country haven’t received any training on how to step in.  

“Every police officer in the country has come out of the police academy having practiced shooting a gun, and having practiced being in a gunfight,” Aronie said. “Almost none have ever practiced saying to a senior officer, ‘Hey, don’t do what you’re doing.’” 

Aronie oversaw the launch of what's called the EPIC program in the New Orleans Police Department starting in 2014, which stands for Ethical Policing is Courageous. At the core of the program is what’s called “active bystander” training, which Aronie said isn’t only about preventing high-profile misconduct like Floyd's killing, but about changing the daily practices of a department.   

“There are probably hundreds of lesser things before that that people did not intervene on,” Aronie said. “So by the time you get to the George Floyd-like situation, nonintervention is already a learned behavior.”

Aronie said it applies scholarship about the “bystander effect,” which focuses on people’s unwillingness to intervene in situations, and applies that to the culture of policing by giving officers practical tools to intervene, and then normalizing that officers are expected to intervene.  

They train officers to slowly escalate their interventions when time allows, starting with a probing statement, followed by a question, a challenge, and then rising to physical intervention. It also teaches them to accept intervention from their colleagues. It’s a technique the program borrowed from the military and other professions like nursing, where a momentary mistake can be fatal. 

”The actions of the bystander are highly contagious,” Aronie said. “If the bystander acts, others are likely to act. If the bystander doesn’t, then others will probably stand still.”

Addressing the “blue wall of silence,” which critics blame for police officers’ unwillingness to criticize one another, isn’t the goal of the EPIC program, Aronie said. Neither is it a program designed to get officers to inform on their colleagues. 

Instead, the training acknowledges that officers who, for example, observe another officer falsify a police report will find themselves in an untenable situation. The program tries to equip officers with tools to intervene early so they can avoid getting into a place where they need to double-down on a false report by a colleague. 

“They don’t have to jump right in and go to the mutiny. They start with a probing question,” Aronie said. “As with George Floyd, if your first attempt doesn’t work, you just jump in and do whatever you have to do to do it right.” 

‘Saving police officer lives and saving careers’ 

Since the New Orleans program started in 2014, Aronie said there’s evidence of a fundamental change in how rank-and-file officers approach their jobs and colleagues. Part of that has been about redefining what loyalty means. 

“The idea is kind of absurd that loyalty means, ‘I will cover for you no matter what,’” Aronie said. “But what loyalty now has come to mean in New Orleans is, ‘I’m going to keep you out of trouble whether you like it or not.’”

New Orleans Deputy Chief Paul Noel said the program was initially met with skepticism by some officers and the union. But most officers quickly adopted it when they found out how it worked in practice.

A police chief speaks during a press conference.
New Orleans Police Deputy Chief Paul Noel addresses the media with Mayor LaToya Cantrell as officers respond to a shooting at City Park and Canal Avenues that injured six and killed one in New Orleans, La., on Sept. 21, 2019.
Shawn Fink | The Advocate file

“This program is simply about saving police officer lives and saving careers — there’s no negative to implementing a program like this,” Noel said. “This is not a ‘rat your friend out’ program. This is truly about keeping you on the right path, which every officer should want these days.”

Some of the program’s biggest supporters are now officers whose colleagues intervened before a mistake or misconduct could occur, said Lisa Kurtz, a civilian who helps administer EPIC. 

“Most often it’s the person who accepted the intervention, saying, ‘Man, I’m really glad that my partner was there to pull me back from this thing that was going to embarrass me, or harm someone, or have a negative outcome for the department,” Kurtz said.

Supporters say the “active bystander” training model also could help rebuild trust between the community and police departments. Supporters said the EPIC model is one of the only major police reforms to be supported by community activists and longtime critics of police, as well as rank-and-file police officers.  

But unless you have a department culture where officers are willing to intervene with one another, you won’t be able to address misconduct, Noel said. And changing the culture of an organization can take years of hard work. But having the program can embolden good cops to speak out. 

“This program is not going to change a person that’s a bad cop, an immoral person, and all of the sudden make them a good cop,” Noel said. “This program is for people just like me that are good people that come to work every day and try to do the right thing and believe in what we do.” 

Taking ‘active bystander’ national 

The EPIC model inspired the creation of Project ABLE at Georgetown Law, which aims to help departments across the country adopt the “active bystander” training model used in New Orleans. 

Since George Floyd was killed, the program has received about 100 calls from police departments around the country to find out how they could set up their own program. Some, like Philadelphia, Baltimore and the entirety of Washington state, have already committed to training their officers in the program. 

Project ABLE has a list of requirements for law enforcement organizations wanting to develop their own program, including a letter from at least two community organizations like the local NAACP chapter or a group pushing for changes to policing, vouching for the department’s sincerity. 

Minneapolis isn’t one of the cities that’s committed to starting an active bystanders program, but a spokesperson said the department has assigned a commander to preview the training this week. Minneapolis formally changed their policies four years ago to include a duty for officers to intervene. 

Even before George Floyd's killing, the St. Paul Police Department was already planning to launch its own active bystander program, said Deputy Chief Julie Maidment. It will launch this fall and consist of two full days of training. 

She was one of the officers from the department that Chief Todd Axtell sent to New Orleans in recent years to learn about EPIC. In addition to preventing misconduct and mistakes, Maidment said programs like EPIC have the added benefit of increasing officer wellness by not putting split-second decisions on the shoulder of just one officer.

“It takes some of the stress and burden off of us when we go to a call,” Maidment said. “We’re taking care of each other, we're taking care of the residents, we're leaning on each other."  

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