Growing number of police departments training cops on how to intervene with colleagues

Police are required by law to stop fellow officers engaged in misconduct. However, they often aren't trained in how to do it.

Screenshot from body camera.
A body-camera video from former Minneapolis police officer Tou Thao shows bystanders repeatedly plead with officers to get off George Floyd. Minneapolis police are one of a few hundred departments that have adopted a training to intervene with colleagues. However, it’s not clear how many MPD officers have received it.
Courtesy of Hennepin County District Court file

Updated: 5:43 p.m.

Former Minneapolis police officers Tou Thao, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng are in federal court this week facing charges based on what they did not do on May 25, 2020.

All three men are charged with failing to provide medical help to George Floyd as he died slowly under the knee of Derek Chauvin. Two of them, Thao and Kueng, also face charges that they neglected to intervene to stop their fellow officer from killing Floyd. 

Prosecutors argue Floyd was in the custody of all of the officers and they each had a responsibility to protect Floyd’s civil rights. Attorneys for the three officers argue the Minneapolis Police Department did not adequately train officers on how to intervene when a fellow officer was acting unreasonably.

One attorney, Thomas Plunkett, said in court the training officers received involved a PowerPoint presentation. Lane also asked Chauvin twice if they should turn Floyd, who was saying repeatedly that he could not breathe. 

Christy Lopez is co-director of the Center for Innovation in Community Safety at Georgetown Law in Washington D.C. Lopez was inspired after Floyd’s killing to create a scenario-based, interactive training experience to help officers intervene. 

“What was clear to me was that training helps create both the expectation, it signals the support of the leadership of the agency, and importantly, it really provides officers the knowhow for how to do it,” Lopez said.

Since a 1972, the courts have upheld a duty to intervene, said Lopez. However, she did not see it happening much in the police departments across the nation she investigated as part of her work. 

The training is called Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement, or ABLE. So far, Lopez said 200 agencies have participated, including the Minneapolis Police Department.

Lopez said MPD was accepted into the ABLE Program in July 2021 and has sent instructors through the program. It was a "train-the-trainer" program, which means the instructors are meant to go back to the department and teach ABLE directly to the entire agency in small groups of no more than 25 to 30 people.

MPD said it has 12 sworn personnel who are now qualified ABLE trainers. The department’s goal is to have all officers complete ABLE training by the end of 2022. Public Information Officer Garrett Parten said in a statement that MPD “will work diligently to balance the resources needed for 911 response and investigations with the important provision of ABLE and all other ongoing training.”

Minneapolis police have had a “duty-to-intervene” policy since 2016, and the state of Minnesota passed a similar law in the summer after Floyd’s killing. Lopez said a policy does not equal training. 

Interim Police Chief Amelia Huffman said at a recent news conference that there have been some instances of officer intervention since Floyd’s death.

“One officer will see that another officer’s frustration is growing and will step in to encourage them to interact with a different group of folks on the call, or to take a step back, so they can manage that situation more effectively,” Huffman said.

Lopez pointed out ABLE training does not require reporting an incident when something has been avoided, so it can be hard for agencies to track these instances. That also means the officer whose actions warranted an intervention from fellow officers would not necessarily face any additional training or consequences as a result of something that almost happened. 

Lopez said this type of training is relatively new and cannot be the only way to change a department’s culture. 

“There are 18,000 agencies in the country, so none of us really knows how many agencies you need to train before it becomes the norm and this is what is expected,” Lopez said. “But that’s what I think needs to happen.”

Lopez described how the moments captured on video of all four officers with Floyd could have gone differently by implementing ABLE. 

The goal is to probe, alert, challenge and then take action. Lopez said Lane did perform the first step by asking Chauvin if they should turn Floyd. An alert would have sounded like, “Hey, if we don’t turn him over, he might suffocate,” Lopez said.

Lane stopped short of challenging Chauvin, Lopez said, which would have sounded like, “You need to take your knee off his neck.”

The fourth step — to take action — would have meant physically removing Chauvin’s knee from Floyd’s neck, Lopez said.

The three former officers also face a state trial in June on charges of aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter.

Chauvin is serving a 22 1/2-year sentence for the murder of Floyd. Chauvin pleaded guilty to the federal civil rights charges against him.

Correction (Jan. 28, 2022): A previous version of this story misstated the name of the center where Lopez is a co-director.

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