Officers fear retaliation if they step in to stop misconduct by other officers. In the wake of George Floyd’s death, departments are trying to change that.
BALTIMORE — On an early Monday morning in a chilly classroom in Baltimore, a diverse group of recruits to one of the nation’s most troubled police departments gathered for a new kind of training. The screen flashed a photo of a man whose face is now familiar to the world.
“What happened to George Floyd?” the instructor barked.
“He was lynched,” one trainee responded. “He was murdered,” another said.
“How many other officers were there?” the instructor asked.
Many knew the answer: “Three.”
That was the crux of the matter at hand — not the senior officer who knelt on Mr. Floyd’s neck, Derek Chauvin, but the three others who did not stop him.
The question of what other officers could or should have done was not abstract: More than a thousand miles away those same three former officers, two of them rank rookies, were standing trial on charges that they failed to prevent the death of Mr. Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020. On Thursday, they were convicted and could face many years in prison.
For decades, many police critics have complained that officers who allow police misconduct to happen do more damage to the community’s trust than the officers who commit it. Yet they have not been a focus — when Rodney King was Tased and beaten by four Los Angeles officers in 1991, more than a dozen others looked on. None of the onlookers faced charges.
The federal trial of Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane in Minnesota this month was one of the rare attempts to hold officers to account over the issue. The duty to stop a fellow officer who is engaging in misconduct has long been embedded in many department policies and upheld by the courts, but the defendants in Minnesota argued that during their training it was “little more than a word on a PowerPoint.”
Officers across the country have been told they must intervene, but they have not necessarily been taught how to do so.
Mr. Floyd’s death has begun to change that. More than 215 departments have signed up for a Georgetown University program that teaches officers the philosophy and techniques of intervention.
“Watching that Floyd video, you’re thinking, the only thing that could have snapped any one of those officers out of it would have been for another one of them to intervene,” said Chief Kelly McCarthy of Mendota Heights, a Minneapolis suburb, whose department has begun to use the training. Dallas, Seattle, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Washington, D.C., and all of New Jersey are also participating.
Active bystander training is not new — the airline industry and hospitals have used it to empower co-pilots and nurses to speak up to prevent mistakes, and it has even been used to help stop sexual assault on college campuses.
Its use in policing began in New Orleans in 2016 after a number of officers faced criminal charges, including a rookie who went to prison for helping cover up a fatal beating perpetrated by his training officer.
But other departments had been slow to adopt such programs, for many reasons. The paramilitary structure of law enforcement agencies discourages questioning the chain of command, and departments have a long track record of retaliating against whistle-blowers. Officers who break the culture of silence risk being passed over for promotions or even being fired themselves, as Cariol Horne in Buffalo was after she stopped a white officer from choking a Black suspect.
To overcome these barriers, trainees are told that the program is not about ratting out their comrades but stopping them from committing misconduct in the first place. They are told to think of officers in need of intervention as humans who get tired and stressed and make mistakes, and of themselves as helpers who can respond to warning signs of mental illness, addiction or suicide.
Intervention, the premise goes, is just one more way that officers take care of one another.
“We get an opportunity to redefine this whole freaking thing about the ‘thin blue line,’ redefine what it means to have each other’s back,” said Jerry Clayton, the sheriff in Ann Arbor, Mich. “It’s so hypocritical to criticize the community around ‘no snitching’” — an unwritten rule on the street that officers say prevents them from solving crimes — “and then we turn around and say, ‘I can’t talk about that thing that happened.’”
Michael S. Harrison was the chief who started the training in New Orleans in 2015 with the help of Ervin Staub, a psychologist and Holocaust survivor who has studied the dynamics of bystander intervention.
Mr. Harrison brought the program with him to Baltimore, where he is now the commissioner. At both departments, he has been charged with correcting a pattern of constitutional violations under agreements with the Justice Department known as consent decrees.
“Historically, loyalty was looked at as, if I confide in you, you keep my secret,” Commissioner Harrison said. “We started teaching: Loyalty should be displayed on the front end” to prevent potential injury, death, career ruin or worse.
The bottom line, he said: “Let’s let me help you not make this mistake in the first place.”
In the two years after New Orleans trained its officers, the number of canine bites, police shootings, vehicle chases and use-of-force complaints dropped. Because of other changes mandated by the consent decree, it is not clear how much of those declines are attributable to intervention training, but close observers like Jonathan Aronie, the federal monitor, say it helped change department culture.
In Baltimore this month, the trainees acted out scenarios that might call for intervention. In one, an officer begins an illegal search of a woman’s car; in another, a supervisor pressures an officer to pretend he did not hear a suspect ask for a lawyer — a request that normally would put an end to an interrogation.
Recruits were introduced to the “inhibitors” that keep bystanders passive, including lack of empathy, fear of being ostracized and “pluralistic ignorance” — when people assume that what is happening must be OK because no one else is intervening.
They watched a body-worn camera video that captured the Baltimore bicycle squad dealing with a belligerent young man who has been detained. When one officer removes his sunglasses — a sign that he may be about to use force — another officer quickly steps in to take his place. In a snippet from a 2020 protest in Seattle after Mr. Floyd’s death, an officer speedily removes his partner’s knee from a detainee’s neck.
Police chiefs say that sometimes all that is needed in a tense situation is a discreet signal, like pointing to the pin officers get when they complete the training. Or officers may “tap out” overwrought colleagues by placing a hand on their shoulder or saying something like, “The lieutenant wants to talk to you.”
In New Orleans, “I got this” became a catchphrase and the name of the training program, Ethical Policing Is Courageous, became a verb — as in, “I’m going to EPIC you.”
In one incident in New Orleans, a sheriff’s deputy who punched a handcuffed suspect was told by a New Orleans officer, “We don’t roll like that anymore,” said Deputy Superintendent Paul Noel, who helped develop the program there.
Police culture on trial. The federal civil rights trial that found three former officers guilty for their role in the killing of George Floyd centered on a crucial issue in American policing: the duty of officers to intervene against fellow officers when they witness misconduct.
A new focus. Ever since the murder of Mr. Floyd on May 25, 2020, the overwhelming focus has been on the officer who killed him, Derek Chauvin. While Mr. Chauvin was convicted of murder in a state trial in April 2021, he wasn’t the only officer at the scene.
The defendants. Three officers were accused of willfully failing to intervene against Mr. Chauvin and help Mr. Floyd. Tou Thao, a veteran officer who was Mr. Chauvin’s partner, held back a group of bystanders. J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane, both rookies, helped pin down Mr. Floyd.
The charges. The case centered around whether the defendants deprived Mr. Floyd of his civil rights. All three officers were charged with failing to provide medical aid to Mr. Floyd, while Mr. Kueng and Mr. Thao also faced a count of failing to intervene against Mr. Chauvin’s use of force.
The verdict. Prosecutors argued that the officers knew in the moment that Mr. Floyd was in severe medical distress and that Mr. Chauvin was breaking the law. On Feb. 24, 2022, a jury found the former officers guilty. The three men still face a separate trial on state charges.
The ramifications. The verdict could have a greater effect on policing than even Mr. Chauvin’s conviction, experts and activists say, because the case is about a far more common aspect of police culture: the tendency of officers to stand by when they witness a fellow officer committing a crime.
An intervention program created at Georgetown Law — a revamp of EPIC called ABLE, or Active Bystandership in Law Enforcement — teaches a series of escalating steps: First, question the officer’s actions, then challenge the officer, then command the officer to stop or physically intervene. In the Floyd case, Mr. Lane twice questioned whether Mr. Floyd should be moved to a safer position but dropped the issue when he was rebuffed. He faced one less charge than his co-defendants.
In Cincinnati, Sheriff Charmaine McGuffey said she had given three commendations for successful interventions at the county jail since her department began the program last year. In one, she said, a veteran officer got involved in a heated verbal exchange with an inmate, followed him to his cell and grabbed him. Another officer with far less seniority stepped in.
“He broke the inmate away from the officer and dragged him away from the situation, and was able to say to the officer, ‘Hey, you’ve gone too far, man.’”
Advocates have long called for increased accountability and clear consequences for officers who commit misconduct. They have also been generally supportive of intervention training, which does not replace the disciplinary process should misconduct occur.
“If that’s what it takes to get police to buy in, that ‘We’ll save each other’s necks,’ fine,” said Michelle Gross, who helps lead the Minneapolis group Communities United Against Police Brutality. “It’s harm reduction for the community.”
Ms. Gross said her organization and others had tried in vain to get the Minneapolis Police Department to adopt an intervention program in the years before Mr. Floyd was killed. More than a year after his death, the department, facing a Justice Department investigation, entered the Georgetown program.
Ms. Gross was skeptical of the department’s commitment. “You can’t do this on a limited basis; this is a top-down culture change,” she said. “What it really comes down to is they don’t want to actually change the culture. They like the culture the way it is.”
Garrett Parten, a spokesman for the department, said Minneapolis was now using two separate training programs on the duty to intervene and called it “critical in our work to care for our community.”
In New Orleans, when the idea of peer intervention training was first broached, “The most common thing was, everybody said, ‘We already do that,’” Superintendent Noel said. “What we know from the research is, people don’t.”
Selecting officers with “street credibility” to teach the program — including some who would themselves have benefited from intervention earlier in their careers — helped it win acceptance, he said.
But all it takes is one roll of the eyes from a sergeant to undermine a training. And cultural change can be rocky.
The Orlando Police Department was booted from the Georgetown program after a manager complained that trainers were not adhering to the curriculum and was removed from his position. Chief Orlando Rolón said the manager was moved because he reported the problems to Georgetown instead of having the courage to tell his colleagues.
In Baltimore, the trainees had questions about retaliation. Were they really not going to get in trouble, they wanted to know, if they stepped in? Could it keep them from getting promoted?
“I understand why we need it and how it could help us, especially working with those older officers,” said Charda Scofield, a Black 23-year-old recruit who faced opposition from family and friends when she donned a uniform. She said she would soon be out on the street with her colleagues. “It’s definitely good training — but I haven’t actually seen it being applied.”