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Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement Training Teaches Police Officers How to Intervene When Their Fellow Officers Use Excessive Force

by Jo Ellen Nott

An epidemic of police officers using excessive force in situations that do not require police brutality to subdue or arrest an individual in the United States has a gruesome death toll. In case after case, from Tamir Rice in 2014 to Philando Castile in 2016 to Daunte Wright in 2021 to Patrick Lyoya in 2022 and many others, law enforcement officers have crossed over from law enforcers to law breakers to inflict pain and death, many times ignoring department policy. 

In the brutal assault on Tyré Nichols on January 7, 2023, Memphis Police Department officers beat, pepper-sprayed, and tased the young Black man for what they incorrectly believed to be his contempt of cops. During those 13 minutes of brutality, no one intervened to stop the illegal use of force – not the other MPD officers who arrived at the scene nor Shelby County Sheriff’s deputies who were seen on body cam video arriving in a squad car. 

This failure to intervene is familiar from other notorious cases, including the 2020 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Too many times, officers see a colleague using excessive force but do not take action to stop the incident. This inaction is due to social and institutional pressures to not second guess a fellow officer. Because of this entrenched police culture to “have each other’s back,” legal reforms do not work nor do departmental policies aimed at reducing use of force. 

The Innovations in Community Safety (formerly known as the Innovative Policing Program) at the Georgetown Law Center wants to make a difference. Its Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement (“ABLE”) training program builds on psychological research to eliminate the barriers that prevent intervention in cases of excessive force. Research points to the reasons why police officers do not intervene: deference to authority, the bystander effect where people are less likely to act when there is a greater number of people present, and the fear of retaliation and blackballing.

The ABLE program started in 2021 as an extension of the New Orleans program Ethical Policing Is Courageous. To date, the program involves more than 300 law enforcement agencies, and the Knoxville, Tennessee Police Department is one of the latest agencies slated to begin ABLE training in 2023. The goals of ABLE are to prevent misconduct, avoid police mistakes, and promote officer health and wellness.  

To receive ABLE training, an agency must undergo an application process which demands that its police leadership, local politicians, and community groups commit to the program in writing. The commitment is an oath to create a culture that reinforces the duty to intervene. ABLE training is free to police departments thanks to support from the Sheppard Mullin global law firm and several corporate donors. Its curriculum uses case studies and role-playing scenarios to identify and overcome barriers to intervention.    

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