Often, when an incident escalates out of control, the human tendency is to avoid stepping in. However, inactive bystandership can have disastrous consequences, particularly in policing.
With this in mind, Georgetown University, in conjunction with the New Orleans Police Department, has created the Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement Project, designed to teach potentially life-saving intervention skills to police personnel.
ABLE Project co-founder Jonathan Aronie gave two examples of tragic situations that could have been prevented. In one, an officer died after a series of mistakes led to an armed suspect being placed in his police vehicle. More recently, George Floyd, an unarmed civilian, died after a police officer used excessive force that many believe was racially charged. In these and many other situations, nearby officers could have spoken up but did not.
This lack of intervention was not due to laziness or lack of caring. Nor did they necessarily condone what was being done. Rather, Aronie noted, they lacked the tools necessary to know what to do.
What is ABLE?
ABLE launched in June 2020 and is based on NOPD’s Ethical Policing is Courageous program. Besides being a co-founder, Aronie, an attorney at Sheppard Mullin LLP, serves as ABLE Project chair and is a member of the board of advisors.
Aronie also oversaw the formation of and adherence to EPIC training.
Following Floyd’s death, NOPD received requests for EPIC training throughout the country. Realizing the need was greater than the NOPD could meet alone, it turned to Georgetown Law. Aronie’s firm donated funding toward the formation of a program like EPIC that would be accessible to police departments nationwide.
Departments choose personnel to act as ABLE representatives, undergoing training so they, in turn, can serve as trainers.
ABLE focuses on three pillars: preventing misconduct, avoiding mistakes and officer health and wellness. It does not point the finger but seeks to understand why an officer might react badly to a situation and why those around that person might be reluctant to step in. Then, it teaches them to take action.
“We have a responsibility to advocate and push back on police misconduct and (focus on) the prevention of mistakes, and really watch over our fellow brothers and sisters when it comes to health and wellness,” Sgt. Justin Nichols, St. Louis County Police Department in Missouri, said.
The concepts taught through ABLE are not brand-new, Aronie said. Intervention skills have been taught for years in other lines of work, yet somehow overlooked in policing.
“There are these long-studied inhibitors for intervention that are never taught to police,” he said. “They are taught to nurses and doctors, they’re taught to co-pilots and navigators. They are actually taught on college campuses now.”
To qualify for ABLE, a department must commit to a list of 10 standards, one of which is obtaining letters of support from community organizations. Letters of support have come from local NAACP chapters, faith-based organizations, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, American Civil Liberties Union chapters in New Hampshire and Washington State, Black Lives Matter, Southern Methodist University and many others.
ABLE trainer Lt. Shelly Katkowski, Burlington, N.C., Police Department, feels the program is a good complement to policies already in place in Burlington’s department.
“We had a very up-to-date, viable policy regarding duty to intervene, and we recognized that, although we had that policy, there is an element of training that needs to be implemented,” she said.
ABLE is not meant to be a one-time course to check off of a list.
“We don’t want this program just to be a one-time shot,” Nichols said. “We want it and see it as a cultural change, to allow us as the Diversity and Inclusion Unit to really build and integrate it throughout all of our systems.”
According to officer Jesse Carr, ABLE coordinator for the Southern Methodist University Police Department in Texas, ABLE concepts are relevant in a variety of scenarios.
“The nice thing about ABLE is it doesn’t train or really prepare you for a situation that’s specific to a type of crime or a type of incident that you might encounter as an officer,” he said. “It’s very universal and a lot of the principles it teaches can be applied to any situation.”
Participating agencies are given post-training surveys, which Georgetown will index and use to better understand how the program is working.
“Part of the ABLE program is to capture that information when we have successful interventions,” Nichols said. “Even if it is, say for instance, a use-of-force scenario, but someone comes in later in that scenario and prevents further harm, we want to acknowledge those individuals who stepped up and intervened.”
Carr believes quantifying the program’s success could be difficult, because it would involve measuring events that never happened since they were prevented.
“Tangibly, that’s hard to do,” he said. “But I would say, probably the biggest way is keeping it as something that’s active, but then also ensuring that … myself as the coordinator and the other instructors, making sure we’re still out there and involved with the officers and keeping ourselves aware of situations where ABLE did come into play.”
The Burlington Police Department has already incorporated ABLE into its mandatory in-service training. Meanwhile, the Southern Methodist University Police Department has doubled the required follow-up training hours from two to four. St. Louis County Police Department hopes the program will permeate the very essence of its workings.
“We hope this training will give us the skills to intervene not just in a use-of-force scenario, but in everyday, interpersonal dynamics, where we see people going through hard times in life,” Nichols said. “To peek into their life a little bit and give them the help that they need, to be accepting of intervention, to understand that, all the way from the chief on down, they can be intervened on when they see mistakes happening.”
Focus on well-being
One of the ABLE components that stands out most to Katkowski is its focus on officer well-being, something seldom addressed in policing until recently.
“For many years, it wasn’t OK to not be OK,” Katkowski said. “That was just the job. You didn’t talk about it when you left that scene, or maybe you didn’t cope with it the way you should or made jokes instead of sitting down and actually saying, ‘It really bothered me.’ And now agencies are finally recognizing, we’re not meant to see the things we see at the rate we see them.”
Intervening on a fellow officer can be easier said than done, Katkowski said, especially if the officer needing intervention outranks the other officers nearby.
It’s hard to go into a scene where, say, a lieutenant is having a bad day and say, ‘I’ve got this one,’ and the person being intervened on has to accept it,” she said.
Sometimes, an officer may need to intervene on oneself, Carr said.
“Part of the program is you can intervene on yourself, and that’s not a simple thing, identifying where you’re starting to lose control and tapping out and letting somebody else tap in and allowing yourself to kind of take a pause and recollect yourself,” he said.
While this goes a long way to protect civilians, it also serves to protect the officers.
Carr noted, while there has been a lot of focus on the duty to intervene, there has not been a lot of discussion on the “how.” Nichols commented programs like ABLE represent a duty police departments have to the communities they serve.
“So often in law enforcement, we get programs that teach us life-saving measures in so many areas,” Nichols said. “This is a program that changes law enforcement culture … we need to really step up and hold ourselves accountable to the standards that we have in many of our policies.”
The St. Louis County Police Department learned of the training when its deputy chief attended the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Conference in New Orleans, where he took part in an EPIC program. Impressed, he asked Nichols and the department’s Diversity and Inclusion Unit to attend a virtual EPIC conference, where they learned about ABLE.
“We were astounded by just the accuracy, as far as it being part of law enforcement and needed,” Nichols said. “The training was excellent, giving people an excellent plan to intervene, telling everybody about the science behind human behavior in general, so we definitely knew it was something that was needed in this department.”
The department plans to have approximately 1,300 commissioned and professional staff members take the training this summer.
“Everyone from the chief all the way down to the first-day recruit will participate in this program,” Nichols said.
Celebrating the successes
Just as important as preventing an incident is the recognition of officers who have used their training. The St. Louis County Police Department has identified ways to recognize these wins, which may involve videos highlighting successful interventions and articles in publications like the Diversity and Inclusion Unit’s newsletter.
The Burlington Police Department also makes it a point to celebrate those successes. “Celebrating those things is so important, because when you reward that behavior, you want to do it, and we do have systems in place where we do try to celebrate those wins,” Katkowski said. “It’s no longer ‘just doing your job.’ It’s celebrating and encouraging you and your peers, plus the person being intervened upon will recognize, ‘Hey, you saved me from potentially getting complained against.”