In democratic societies, one reality that police organisations must face is how to avoid excessive use of force. The debate often focuses on the demand for professional and criminal liability a posteriori, which also often clashes with a certain corporate “solidarity” of the officers who should contribute to proving the facts. An alternative (and more positive) strategy for dealing with these bad practices is to encourage the patrol colleagues themselves to stop or prevent these deviant behaviours, as in cases that have come to light, it has been shown that, while some officers exceeded the use of force, others who did not participate actively did nothing to prevent it.
In the United States, in recent years, following incidents of abuse of force that have happened around the world, attempts have been made to promote these interventions through training that attempts to reverse the passivity of officers who do not intervene directly but who witness the events. In 2015, the New Orleans Police Chief at that time, Michael S. Harrison, launched the EPIC (Ethical Policing Is Courageous) programme. He was assisted by psychologist Ervin Staub, a professor specialising in the psychology of violence.
The programme is based on the approach that police officers are people who at certain times may be tired and stressed, circumstances that may lead them to make mistakes. Their colleagues who are also present at the site of the action, but who do not make an intervention and instead take on the role of observer or spectator, can detect these situations, which may also be signs of mental illness or addiction. In this way, it is intended to avoid the reluctance that exists in the police forces related to corporatism and the culture of silence in the face of these deviant actions, as preventive intervention is not detrimental to the colleague, but rather prevents the incident. Therefore, it goes beyond the fact of not following someone who is performing a deviant action or stopping it, and the emphasis is placed on the causes and possible indicators.
At the same time, it proposes a paradigm shift in how loyalty is understood, that it should not be seen as keeping silent about wrongdoing, but should be the basis for preventing injuries, deaths or officers putting their professional careers at risk. In other words, it emphasises the need for officers to care for one another and redefines what is considered to be giving and receiving support from colleagues.
The training identifies the inhibiting factors that cause an officer to maintain a passive role and not stop an inappropriate action, such as lack of empathy or fear of being ostracised. It also shows how, with some small actions, these actions can be prevented or stopped before they become irregular: a police officer who takes charge of the action when they see their partner taking off their glasses, or another who removes the knee of a fellow police officer from the neck of a detainee. Other alternatives they propose are, for example, pointing out the badge given to police officers who have completed the training, or using some key phrases to take over the action or to make the fellow police officer see that the use of force must be stopped.
In the two years following the training of officers in this city, some incidents, such as vehicle pursuits or use of force complaints, declined, although it is unclear to what extent this decline was related to the programme.
EPIC was the basis that the Georgetown University Law School used for another programme, called ABLE, an acronym for Active Bystandership in Law Enforcement Policing, which has already been adhered to by over 200 US law enforcement agencies.
For more information you can consult the following links:
The New York Times. “A New Message for Police: If You See Something, Say Something,” February 27, 2022.
BBC News: “Ervin Staub: A Holocaust survivor’s mission to train ‘heroic bystanders'”