Training Police to Step In and Prevent Another George Floyd

By: - June 5, 2020 12:00 am

Police officers knelt with protesters who took over the elevated Interstate 10 in New Orleans. Officers in New Orleans are trained to intervene when fellow officers act inappropriately. Gerald Herbert/The Associated Press

George Floyd did not die in an instant. He suffocated to a slow death, pleading “I can’t breathe,” as a Minneapolis police officer pinned his knee to Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.

What haunts Paul Noel, the deputy superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department, is that three other officers watched it happen.

“That’s what I can’t get past,” Noel said. “This was preventable.”

The New Orleans Police Department, which has been under a federal consent decree since 2012 for widespread misconduct following Hurricane Katrina seven years earlier, is now a national leader in peer intervention training. Many experts, civil rights lawyers and law enforcement leaders believe such training might have prevented Floyd’s death. But only a handful of departments use it.

Peer intervention training instills the idea that officers have a duty to act as a check on their fellow officers’ misconduct, such as using excessive force, planting evidence or lying in official reports. They are legally obligated, the training teaches, to quickly stop an officer from committing an act of improper policing before it leads to firings, criminal charges or death.

The three officers who watched Floyd die, Noel said, should have stopped it. Their own police department has rules requiring as much, but it lacks the comprehensive training New Orleans has.

The arresting officer, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, has been charged with murder, while the three witnessing officers have been charged with aiding and abetting murder. “The law enforcement profession needs to recognize that we need to change,” Noel said, “that we need to do better.”

As protesters in cities around the country rally against police brutality, some law enforcement agencies are trying to gain public trust and prevent future tragedies. Advocates of peer intervention say training that puts the oversight onus on fellow officers could help solve systemic problems in law enforcement.

“You should be requiring this for every person,” said Christy Lopez, who led the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division’s investigation and consent decree negotiations with the Ferguson, Missouri, Police Department after the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown.

“This is a no-brainer,” said Lopez, who now co-leads Georgetown Law’s Innovative Policing Program. “There’s no downside to requiring this.”

After Floyd’s death, more police departments and state police training academies are preparing to adopt this training for their officers.

Washington state may become the first state to implement peer intervention training for city and county law enforcement recruits, said Sue Rahr, executive director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, which designs state training curriculum.

There must be a culture shift in law enforcement, Rahr told Stateline. The “blue wall of silence” and no-snitch traditions can no longer be tolerated, and failure to intervene in police misconduct should be met with swift punishment.

But how do departments change that culture? Rahr said. This week, she has a call with leading proponents of peer intervention as she prepares to bring the training to her academy.

While she has been interested in this training for some time, conversations she had with her instructors after Floyd’s death added a sense of urgency.

“This moment is extremely challenging,” she said. “We are really trying to change the culture in a way that we’re approaching our communities to make peace and safety the highlight, not enforcement.”

On the other side of the country, the Northern Virginia Criminal Justice Training Academy also plans to add this training to its curriculum for officers in the coming months, said Captain Brian M. Berke, the deputy director of basic training at the Ashburn, Virginia, facility. Berke has long considered the training after seeing it presented at law enforcement conferences.

Berke has seen firsthand what happens when officers stand by while fellow officers act inappropriately. Officers must police each other, he said, which can be challenging.

“We are always under a microscope, and our actions are judged quickly,” he said. “We are expected to be highly trained and be able to govern our emotions and reactions. But we are human beings like everyone else.”

Other states and departments are considering different changes after Floyd’s death.

New York lawmakers are debating the repeal of a 44-year-old state law that shields internal files of police misconduct from the public. California last year began unsealing similar complaints after a new law was enacted. Officials in New Jersey and Vermont are boosting their civil rights divisions.

In Congress, a bipartisan group of lawmakers also is looking at legislation to stop the transfer of military-style weaponry from the Pentagon to local police departments, which civil rights activists say has caused untold damage to community relations with law enforcement.

Peer intervention training is one of many solutions that should be applied nationwide, said Lynda Garcia, the policing campaign director of the Leadership Conference Education Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that last year released a 400-page report on implementing fair, safe and effective community policing.

“It has to be a robust, all-hands-on-deck effort in order to adequately reform the police that is necessary at this point,” she said. “What we are seeing in cities across the nation is a collective exasperation for change.”

The Active Bystander

In his peer intervention police training, Jonathan Aronie often points to a scenario many officers have experienced: What to do when a perpetrator spits in an officer’s face?

The first reaction of many officers is to hit the perpetrator, which could lead to injuries to both parties and criminal charges against the officer, said Aronie, lead federal monitor for the New Orleans Police Department and an architect of its peer intervention training program, Ethical Policing Is Courageous (EPIC), which is retaught in part to officers and leaders every year.

Instead, fellow officers should intervene, separate the officer from the offender and de-escalate the situation. The active bystander concept, when embraced from leaders on down, can change the mood in the training room, as officers understand its importance, he said.

This isn’t just a policing issue, he noted. In a wide array of industries, from aviation to medicine, the issue of passive bystandership has been addressed through specific training.

Co-pilots are taught to intervene when a fellow pilot’s decision-making may be impaired, just as fellow surgeons are required to report their colleagues’ malpractice. Police, too, should be active bystanders, he said.

“If you can teach someone to put on a bulletproof vest and you can teach them how to round a corner, you can teach someone to more effectively intervene,” he said. “We know that this can be taught and learned.”

The core teachings of this program come from a Holocaust survivor and emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Ervin Staub learned firsthand about the power of bystanders coming to the aid of people devalued by society in Nazi-occupied Hungary.

Staub studied clinical and real-world examples of bystanders acting or refusing to act to prevent harm — from the Rwandan genocide to the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles, where 17 officers watched colleagues hit King more than 50 times with batons in 1991.

He helped New Orleans create the EPIC curriculum — the first department to add this comprehensive training.

“Active bystanders have great power,” he said.

Within seconds, he said, officers can intervene before fellow officers lash out violently. It can be as simple as tapping an officer on the shoulder or as forceful as a shove.

In Seattle, for example, police officers last week pinned down an alleged looter outside of a T-Mobile store in the downtown area. One officer knelt on the suspect’s neck — reminiscent of the tactic that killed George Floyd.

As onlookers screamed at the officer to get his knee off the suspect’s neck, the other officer on the scene grabbed his colleague’s knee and pulled it off.

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Matt Vasilogambros
Matt Vasilogambros

Matt Vasilogambros covers voting rights, gun laws and Western climate policy for Stateline. He lives in San Diego, California.