Minneapolis police to get bystander training following murder of George Floyd

Police in uniform raise their right hands.
New police officers raise their hands to take an oath at a Minneapolis Police Academy graduation ceremony at the Minneapolis Convention Center on July 17, 2020.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2020

Attorneys for the three former Minneapolis police officers charged with aiding and abetting Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd are expected to argue that their clients had not been trained to intervene when a fellow officer uses too much force.

Now, the department is adopting a training program designed to do just that. It’s called ABLE, or Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement, and it was developed Georgetown Law's Innovative Policing Program and the law firm Sheppard Mullin. It taps research and training in other fields, including surgery and aviation, to teach people how to step in when their colleague — even a senior colleague — is likely to cause harm.

Chauvin was the senior officer on the scene when Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng helped him restrain Floyd, who told the officers he could not breathe. Lane suggested to Chauvin that they roll Floyd onto his side to relieve the pressure on his chest, but Chauvin refused. The third former officer still awaiting trial, Tou Thao, held an agitated group of bystanders at bay.

Christy Lopez, who co-leads the Innovative Policing Program and previously led the federal investigation into the Ferguson Police Department following the police killing of Michael Brown in 2014, said the ABLE training teaches officers to go beyond making suggestions and to physically intervene if necessary.

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Since launching a year ago, 180 departments have adopted the program.

Lopez spoke with MPR News host Tom Crann. The conversation is transcribed below. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What can officers expect from the training? How does it work?

It adapts training that's been done in a number of different industries regarding active bystandership. We know from the airline industry and from operating rooms that there are ways to teach people to step in to prevent their colleagues from doing harm, even when those colleagues might have rank on them.

So what this training does is it has adapted those principles of active bystandership that have been studied for decades and applies them in the policing context.

What should the public expect from the training, and what shouldn't they expect?

It’s meant to change the culture and mindsets in place in agencies. But that said, we don't think it's a panacea. It's not going to change everything in policing.

What it does do, I think, is fill a gap, which is actually teaching officers who want to do the right thing the skills so that they're able to do that. We actually teach officers what words to use, how to be effective and how not to get rebuffed when you're trying to intervene to prevent harm.

Walk us through a scenario or two that would illustrate what's covered in the training and how officers are taught to respond.

We have what we call the three pillars of ABLE: preventing officer misconduct, preventing officer mistakes and promoting officer wellness. To take an example from officer misconduct, you might have an officer who is clearly getting riled up by another individual. Maybe it's an officer who's an officer of color and the person is using racial epithets against them. You may know that you have to step in to prevent this officer from going too far.

We teach officers that there are ways to do [this] that may be more effective than, for example, calling them out publicly. You can just say, “Hey, can you go get this thing from the car for me?” or, “The sergeant wants to talk to you.” Something like that will help them save face.

We also teach officers that, if necessary, you're going to have to ratchet it up and you may have to actually get to the point where you need to physically intervene to prevent another officer from causing harm.

Another example has to do with officer wellness. There may be an officer who notices that his or her colleague is coming to work appearing disheveled, maybe tired. Maybe they’re having trouble at home — such as marital troubles or substance abuse problems. Those are issues you really need to correct immediately, not only for the officer's own wellness but because it can impact conduct on the streets. So we actually teach officers how to intervene in those situations as well.

In the bystander video of the killing of George Floyd, we see former officer Thomas Lane suggest to Derek Chauvin a couple of times that they should turn George Floyd on his side to help with breathing. Lane was the rookie officer there. Chauvin was the field training officer. What would his training have advised in a situation like that?

I don't want to speak directly to that incident, since it is currently being litigated. But I will say that we teach officers what we call PACT: probe, alert, challenge and take action.

We want officers to first probe — “Hey, should we really be doing this?” — and then to alert — “You should not be doing this. I think this could cause problems.” And then we want them to challenge — “You need to stop doing this or I'm going to intervene.” And then finally, actually physically intervene if necessary. But we encourage officers to sort of go through that progression where time permits.

We actually borrowed that idea from the airline industry, where they were teaching co-pilots how to intervene. You don't immediately take over the controls. You first ask the question, “Is this the right altitude?” And you ratchet it up from there. It allows people to save face and do the right thing as early as possible. But it also makes it clear to the officer that if those don't work, you're going to have to continue to escalate.

It sounds like a lot of this might require a change in culture in policing. How does it go over?

You've really hit the nail on the head. On the one hand, in order to for this program to be as fully effective as possible, you really do have to have a culture that supports it. On the other hand, we're actually hoping that this program can help drive that cultural change. So it's a little bit iterative.

We know from research that if you teach people these skills, some of them will just do them. Others will still be worried about retaliation or getting it wrong. And it really takes an agency to support this. That's why we have ABLE standards that we require every agency who takes our training to commit to.

One of them, for example, is that an agency has to have a strong anti-retaliation policy. Another requirement is that when you investigate an allegation of misconduct, you not only investigate the officer who's accused of misconduct, but if it looks like there were other officers who were there and did not intervene, you investigate that as well.

So it's a bit of a carrot and stick approach to really encourage officers to think differently about loyalty, about who they serve, about moral courage. And we think there's a real opportunity there to really change the culture of policing writ large.

Whether it's body cameras or implicit bias training, there's some criticism that it's just boxes to be checked — to get the public eye and scrutiny off the department. What would you say to somebody who thinks that's the case with this program?

I would say that we share that concern, and we are doing everything that we can to prevent this from being a program that is just window dressing.

One of the problems of some other sorts of trainings is that they're just building awareness. They don't actually give officers the tools to change their behavior. And everything about this program is designed to get officers to change their behavior.

And so it actually can have an impact, not only in terms of teaching officers how to intervene to prevent other officers from causing harm to members of the public, but also giving officers the tools to know how to intervene, when, for example, they hear an officer expressing a racial stereotype or a stereotype about, for example, female officers. It really teaches you how to step up and have those conversations and challenge problematic attitudes in policing.

It's now been implemented in 180 departments. Have you seen evidence that this works?

We're starting to get anecdotal stories of people telling us they used it to intervene in a situation. But we developed a research advisory board, and we're supporting independent research efforts by others to really study more systematically what the impact of this is.

It's not just 180 departments. Some of these are the largest departments in the country, so we're really talking about police agencies serving millions of people. We've trained, for example, all the agencies in the state of New Jersey, NYPD, Philadelphia, Denver. So with that number of officers, we're hopeful that we can actually study this intervention, and we'll be able to have a really full picture of the impact that it's having.

So that's a long way of saying I don't have a full answer to your question yet. The anecdotal information tells us so far that it's working. The research tells us that it has worked in other fields and should work the same way here.