Minneapolis police are launching a departmentwide training program designed to show officers how to intervene when one of their own is using excessive force, more than one year after George Floyd was murdered by an officer in the presence of three other cops.
The program, adopted by about 180 police departments across the United States, is called ABLE — short for Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement — and can help transform the culture of a department, advocates say.
"One of the things that active bystandership teaches officers is how to step in and have hard conversations with officers when they are doing the wrong thing," said Prof. Christy Lopez, co-director of the Innovative Policing Program at Georgetown University Law School in Washington, D.C., which sponsors ABLE. "Sometimes that wrong thing is using too much force or arresting someone that shouldn't be arrested."
ABLE officials notified Minneapolis police leaders in late July that the department had been accepted into the program. Some officers who will conduct the training will get trained this month, said attorney Jonathan Aronie, co-founder of ABLE and a partner in the D.C. law firm of Sheppard Mullin.
The training comes at a difficult time for the Minneapolis Police Department, which could be replaced with a new public safety department if voters approve a ballot measure in November. ABLE is being rolled out nearly three months after former officer Derek Chauvin was sentenced to 22½ years for Floyd's murder, and six months before a scheduled second trial for the three officers who were also on the scene. All four officers pleaded not guilty Tuesday to federal charges that they deprived Floyd of his constitutional rights.
Aronie, who also co-chairs ABLE's advisory board, said that no matter the department's future, Minneapolis officers still need to know how to successfully engage in street interventions with their peers.
The three officers charged with complicity in Floyd's death are expected to argue they never were trained in how to stop another officer — especially a senior officer like Chauvin — from using undue force. The program teaches officers how to stop higher-ranking officers who are behaving improperly.
An ABLE memorandum posted last year noted that policies requiring officers to intervene, which were on the books in Minneapolis at the time Floyd was killed, "are not enough to save lives in the real world." Lopez, who led U.S. Justice Department investigations of police departments during the Obama administration, is quoted as saying that police need to be taught how to intervene.
In an interview, Lopez said ABLE also teaches police how to step in if a male officer treats a female colleague in a demeaning way, or if an officer spouts a racial stereotype about a neighborhood. She said she hopes Minneapolis police will allow Georgetown or an independent entity to study ABLE's impact on the department.
"It is always hard for a department under the spotlight like this to implement these sorts of interventions well because of defensiveness, skepticism and cynicism" coming from within the department as well as the community, Lopez said. "A lot of it is warranted."
Spurred by Floyd's death, the ABLE training program has swept the country. Among the cities whose departments have signed on are New York, Washington, D.C., Boston, Baltimore, Denver, Seattle and Portland, Ore., plus sheriff's departments and other law enforcement entities. Aronie said about 140,000 officers are scheduled to get the training.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and Police Chief Medaria Arradondo submitted letters of application to ABLE in July.
"ABLE training is an important next step in fostering a culture of peer intervention to prevent misconduct and encourage officer wellness," Frey said in a statement to the Star Tribune. "This work reflects our city's values and our commitment to the goal of a safe community for everyone."
Seeking to save lives
ABLE is adapted from a program developed in New Orleans in 2015 called EPIC (Ethical Policing is Courageous). It was implemented after the New Orleans police agreed to federal mandates to reform following major civil rights violations and police misconduct.
The St. Paul Police Department developed its own version of EPIC before Floyd was killed, and began training officers in it last year. St. Paul's program is not affiliated with ABLE. The program uses role playing to teach how to intervene, gently at first with a tap on a shoulder and more forcefully if needed.
ABLE is a 20-hour program stretching over four days that requires two certified trainers for classes of no more than 25 at a time. In some cities, veteran ABLE instructors visit the department to co-teach the first few courses.
Ted Quant, a social justice activist from New Orleans who has been both a critic of police conduct and a supporter of ABLE, has said the program "could have saved George Floyd's life and many other lives."
Ervin Staub, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Massachusetts who developed the theory of bystandership, has noted that when Chauvin had his knee on Floyd's neck, rookie officer Thomas Lane asked if they should "roll [Floyd] on his side." Chauvin said no, but Staub said the three officers watching could have stopped him if they had been trained.
Defense attorney Earl Gray, who represents Lane and says his client tried to intervene twice, noted that while the Police Department says officers had a duty to intervene, they "never had any scenario-based training on how to do so."
In the Chauvin trial, prosecutors argued that any reasonable officer, regardless of rank, would have intervened when confronted with such a glaring example of excessive force. But some department critics insist that no amount of training will prevent a similar incident unless the department's culture changes.
"People do intervene without training, but it shouldn't take exceptional courage," said Joel Dvoskin, a psychologist and a professor at the University of Arizona College of Medicine.
Dvoskin said that while a lack of training could be a mitigating factor in how the three officers responded on the day Floyd died, he wouldn't defend them for failing to intervene.
After Floyd's death, Arradondo told the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension that the three officers watching Chauvin had no excuse.
"We would expect any officer, regardless of tenure, or time on, to verbally and physically ... intervene and make sure you're doing the proper duty of care for someone," Arradondo said, according to investigative documents.
Dave Bicking of local group Communities United Against Police Brutality, said it began urging Arradondo four years ago to adopt the New Orleans bystandership training program. "It is a tragedy that it was not done before George Floyd was killed," Bicking said.
City Council Member Linea Palmisano also endorsed the new training.
"Regardless of our department's future in terms of ballot measures, I see this as a good thing," she said. "None of the things in flux have any bearing on this type of training, because these are about tools to intervene … to serve the public better and our employees better as well."