“Every officer, even the police chief, wears an EPIC pin, which doesn’t just show that he is willing to intervene, but he’s also agreed to be intervened upon,” NOPD Deputy Superintendent Noel said. Image via NOPD/Georgetown University.
“They’re designed to punish a few officers or in some of these cases just to stop them from doing bad things before they get there.”
On May 25, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck for at least eight minutes and 15 seconds while three cops who could have intervened did nothing.
Could those officers watching from feet away have stopped Chauvin?
Other killings of people by the police, including the shooting of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky and Elijah McClain in Colorado, involved at least three officers.
Could any of them have changed the way events unfolded?
And in Massachusetts, in October 2016, Boston Police Department Officer Garrett Boyle fatally shot Terrence Coleman, a 31-year-old African American man who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. It all started with a 911 call from Coleman’s mother, who was asking for medical attention. That brought two cops and EMT personnel, and things escalated from there into a reported scuffle and ended with Coleman being shot twice.
Could the other officer on the scene have prevented Boyle from using his gun?
Recent protests against police brutality, which began surfacing from coast to coast in the wake of Floyd’s death, have prompted many police departments across the country to implement changes, or at least for residents (and in some cases lawmakers) to push for reform. From budget cuts to resource reallocation, departments are trying to revisit their policies and practices.
Aside from whatever comes of police reform at the state level—at the time of this writing, legislators are still working out a final version of a comprehensive omnibus bill—in the Hub, Boston officers already have a new program on deck that is intended to bring individual responsibility into the equation. Even as the law enforcement establishment fights tooth and nail to preserve qualified immunity, which shields officers from most civil lawsuits, they claim to have a plan that will help officers stop colleagues from doing the wrong thing.
On June 11, the BPD announced the implementation of EPIC, a peer intervention program pioneered by the New Orleans Police Department in 2015. The training encourages officers to step in and stop their colleagues from doing bad things, etc. But after years of comparable programs and minor policy adjustments proving ineffective in stopping violence against people of color, protestors, and other groups, some police reform advocates are calling for much bigger changes than initiatives like EPIC, which the BPD proactively embraced.
Matthew Nesvet, an anthropologist and college professor who studies police reform in the US, worked within the New Orleans Police Department from 2016 to 2017 as a consent decree auditor. He didn’t study EPIC implementation during his time there but has recently become familiar with the program. Nesvet said such measures are part of a fantasy that training can change the way that police departments work. Policing in the US, he noted, is meant to serve the powerful, who have financial and social interests in oppressing poor people and people of color. In order to make the changes being demanded today, Nesvet said, departments need to look at leadership.
“Peace doesn’t come by placing the burden of peace on low-level violence workers,” Nesvet said. “You have to disarm them, decommission them, and redirect resources and attention to institutions that can actually create peace.”
Ethical Policing Is Courageous
An eight-hour training, EPIC teaches police officers to intervene when they see a colleague violating rules of conduct. The program goes a step further in recognizing that well-meaning officers can unintentionally make mistakes. At the same time, it allows for cops to gauge the frustration of others, ask co-workers to cool off, or not approach a particular situation—all in service of preventing a possible mishap, or saving lives and careers.
The program is rooted in the study of “active bystandership” by psychologist Dr. Ervin Staub, who escaped the Nazi regime as a child in Hungary. He has studied active and passive bystander situations, as well as the psychology of mass violence, and has used his analysis to promote active bystandership in scenarios ranging from schoolyard bullying to bringing reconciliation talks in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Staub also worked with California after the Rodney King verdict in 1992 to develop an active bystander training program in that state. In a lot of his work, Staub notes inhibitors to active bystandership, which compel peers and other bystanders to remain passive in the face of injustice. In the case of a police department, inhibitors can include a fear of retaliation, or of a code of silence. According to Staub’s studies, such inhibitors lose power when a bystander intervenes.
Following a series of police shootings in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, the city’s police were under significant public and media scrutiny. EPIC became part of a suite of publicly touted reforms put in place over the following years, and in its case was set up by a working committee of former cops, as well as community members, civil rights attorney Mary Howell, and Staub.
Together, the task force designed a program aimed at changing the culture of silence around misconduct in the department. Through training videos and role-playing scenarios, EPIC attempts to teach cops how to speak up and stop their colleagues, irrespective of rank, when “they are tempted to run afoul of regulations—before rules or laws are broken.”
Jonathan Aronie, who was appointed by the US District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana in August 2013 to serve as a federal monitor over the New Orleans Police Department, assisted with the design and implementation of EPIC on a pro bono basis, and said the training acknowledges that people need to be shown how to intervene. Merely telling them does not suffice.
“It’s true for all of us, we all should intervene, but we don’t,” Aronie said in an interview. In 2017, Aronie co-wrote an article for the journal Police Quarterly examining, among other things, how active bystandership has also been used to encourage peer intervention and reduce errors for other professionals like physicians and pilots. He added, “What we’ve learned from social science is that you can actually teach people how to do it and that makes it more likely.”
Not everyone is so convinced of EPIC’s efficacy. Nesvet refutes Staub’s studies, and calls for more peer-reviewed analyses. Expressing doubts about journal articles on EPIC, Nesvet noted apparent conflicts of interest.
“[Aronie],” Nesvet said, “has written about EPIC. His law firm has a contract worth millions of dollars to reform the New Orleans police. When he said this program is effective, that is not independent science.”
Catherine Sanderson studies how police forces are like other groups of people—fraternities, athletic teams. A social psychologist, Amherst College professor, and author of the book Why We Act: Turning Bystanders into Moral Rebels, she approaches police misconduct from a psychological perspective.
“What research in psychology shows is that you can change groups of people,” Sanderson said. “You can shift what the norm is, in any kind of environment.”
Even in police departments, she says, and despite the notorious blue wall of silence.
“Historically, police departments have had a very, very strong social norm—and that norm has been [to] protect your fellow officers, and that means if they engage in bad behavior, you hide it,” she added.
Still, the list of hurdles is long. There is the fear of retaliation, as well as of simply not knowing how to intervene, and the hierarchical structure of departments. Lisa Kurtz, the NOPD innovation manager who oversees EPIC in New Orleans along with Deputy Superintendent Paul Noel, pressed on the need for strong anti-retaliation programs. She also emphasized the active involvement of department leadership, and said that in New Orleans, EPIC training brought officers of different ranks together as trainees, which in her opinion helped bridge the gap.
“Every officer, even the police chief, wears an EPIC pin, which doesn’t just show that he is willing to intervene, but he’s also agreed to be intervened upon,” Deputy Superintendent Noel said.
Ultimately, Aronie said EPIC training is about making officers feel comfortable and confident enough to intervene on a fellow cop. It helps them recognize signs of frustration or discomfort, and is supposed to prevent absolutely “good faith mistakes.”
EPIC, if implemented thoroughly within the department, is supposed to benefit community members and cops alike. As its boosters tell it, there has been success on both fronts so far.
“We have plenty of anecdotal evidence that it works,” Aronie said. The program doesn’t change any reporting protocols or structures within the department, and its advocates often claim that there is nothing to report if “nothing happened.” Nevertheless, according to Aronie, the number of public complaints against police for misconduct have declined since they first implemented EPIC.
“It’s not a panacea. It doesn’t solve all the problems,” said Aronie, who, “in cases when an officer/s has been repeatedly intervened upon, … is confident that most departments would take heed of even a single intervention.” Still, Aronie said reporting and consequent action would depend on individual department policies, and maintained that implementing “new reporting requirements before something happened” might hurt the case for peer intervention and might “discourage officers from doing so.”
“I’ve seen an intervention save … people from harm,” Aronie continued. “Not only civilians … but police officers from losing their careers and … from harm.”
The EPIC training puts a responsibility on police officers to keep their colleagues in check, but it alone does not constitute a cultural shift in a department with potential internal problems. Even Kurtz, the NOPD innovation manager, said that following the EPIC course in isolation isn’t enough. Other programs around topics like implicit bias and procedural justice are also important.
Also looking at the bigger picture, Nesvet pointed to powerful interests that exert pressure on municipalities to over-police certain areas. Put simply, it’s a power issue.
“Can a lone cop say, Let’s not go into this neighborhood and stop and frisk kids?” Nesvet asked rhetorically. “Absolutely not. Can the lone cop, the bystander, say, I don’t want to go into a school and arrest an African American or Native American kid for doing something that we would have sent a rich white kid—in a wealthier part of town—to the principal’s office for? Absolutely not. Can the lone cop say, Why are we harassing someone, trying to remove someone who’s homeless on the streets because the business community works with the police department wants to make sure middle-class urbanites don’t have to be bothered by poverty? Absolutely not.”
All things considered, including calls for defunding police that are growing louder by the week, Aronie said the need for active bystandership training remains. No matter what police departments look like in the future, he said, EPIC should be a critical component of training.
For Nesvet, who has been publicly critical of NOPD, EPIC, even with complementary training programs, will prevent structural changes to police departments. He said these programs are meant to divert attention from bigger problems that plague policing in the US and to reinforce the few bad apples theory.
“They’re designed to punish a few officers or in some of these cases just to stop them from doing bad things before they get there,” Nesvet said. “Constantly saying they’re not about accountability, they’re not about punishment, that’s because they want that.”
“The kinds of violence and target enforcement against working class minorities they’re enacting is not a mistake, it’s not an aberration,” Nesvet added, “it’s what they’re sent to do and eight hours of EPIC training just isn’t going to change that.”
In Boston, activists are skeptically watching the BPD’s implementation of new programs and policies that have come since protests broke out nationwide. Asked about EPIC in particular, Jamarhl Crawford of Mass Police Reform said that it sounds good in theory but questioned why the academy didn’t already provide adequate training. Along with others who have been holding Boston police accountable for years, Crawford has a long list of reforms he would like to see before EPIC, which activists didn’t necessarily ask for. For starters, he would like more community input around the appointment of the police commissioner. As for EPIC and the things BPD is willing to do on its own…
“What we’re really concerned with is who is going to make sure that these are implemented,” Crawford said. “Who is going to be the watchdog for what happens when things eventually and inevitably go awry, as they always do?”