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Bad Cops and Bystanders

For many years police critics have complained that officers who allow police misconduct to happen do more damage to the community’s trust than the officers who commit it. Yet they have not been a focus. Officers across the country have been told they must intervene, but they have not necessarily been taught how to do so.

The recent conviction of three former Minneapolis police officers for failing to stop Derek Chauvin murdering George Floyd in 2020 may have not been at the top of the news agenda here in the UK but nonetheless it’s a story that brings back into the spotlight the consequences of police officers failing to intervene to stop harm.

The murder of Sarah Everard in March 2021 by police officer Wayne Couzens has realised every woman’s worst nightmare.  In a world where women already order their day to prevent sexual violence we now appear to be adding ‘don’t speak to police officers’ to their list of rules that must be followed to stay safe. 

In the days and now weeks after the sentencing of Couzen’s we have all been shocked by the emerging reality that this officer was hiding in plain sight.  Other recent stories have not only highlighted the harmful behaviours of some officers but also the inaction from colleagues and teammates to challenge behaviours that surely go against the values of good policing.

As someone who has been looking at active bystander-ship for many years, a question that needs discussed is, if any of Couzens’s colleagues were uncomfortable with or didn’t agree with what he was saying/doing, why didn’t they act?  I ask, not to blame individual officers, but to provide focus on a culture that often communicates, not to challenge these behaviours without risk of isolation.  In my view until we do so, we will, despite, education, continue to see officers failing to speak up. 

The factors that inhibit bystander action are quite different depending on whether people know each other or not.  Many people do not want to get involved in situations of harassment or violence in which they don’t know the parties involved.  This is largely out of fear of putting themselves at physicalrisk.

Where the bystanders know the people involved, maybe their team, or friendship group, their hesitancy to get involved is typically based on a social fear. They worry that intervening will be awkward and could result in loss of friendships, social status, or professional standing.  Many hesitate to intervene when they see a friend, teammate or colleague behaving inappropriately or abusively not because they approve of the behaviour, but because they lack the language, skills and most importantly, the self-confidence to speak up.  Also, they lack the reassurance that others will support them if they do say something.

To make the changes needed, organisations need to perform deeper, more committed work to both examine their cultures and to activate the bystanders who we know not only see harmful incidents but also witness the build-up to harmful acts. When we examine the likes of school bullying, workplace sexual harassment and police misconduct what connects these, is the silence of bystanders who despite being in a position to know what is happening and in a position to act, fail to do so.

This past week I have noticed quite a few senior police leaders posting blogs on social media highlighting their views on racism and sexism.  This communication is important but in my view it’s just a start. This lack of tolerance for these attitudes needs to be communicated not just top down but from the bottom up also.  When we achieve this the harm doers are kept in check.  Furthermore, when we provide focus on other ranks, we start to provide reassurance that support is likely from colleagues.  When you listen to officers, many simply lack this reassurance.

In the US, peer intervention was introduced to policing in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.  Trust in the New Orleans police department was failing, and misconduct was on the rise.  Academics and officers convinced police leaders to communicate that loyalty in policing, whilst necessary, needed to include having the difficult conversations when colleagues were behaving in ways that was damaging both to the organisation and public confidence.  Active bystander-ship training has become a welcomed part of police training across the US since the death of George Floyd.

Active bystander-ship is the art and science of reducing harm.  In policing this translates to reducing harm to officers, to our communities and to our profession.  It requires a culture which both expects and supports intervention.  Importantly it is based on evidence of decades of social science which suggests we can train people to become active bystanders rather than passive ones.

Let’s be clear active bystander-ship isn’t about grassing on your colleagues, its more about keeping each other safe. The idea that you want colleagues to go home safely after their shift and to have a policing career that isn’t brought to an abrupt halt due to an action or attitude.

In New Orleans the EPIC (Ethical Policing is Courageous) Programme was credited with reducing misconduct and increasing public trust in the New Orleans Police Department.  Since the George Floyd murder in 2020 demand for similar programmes has increased.  The ABLE (Active Bystander in Law Enforcement) Programme builds on the EPIC Programme and is designed not only to reduce misconduct but provides focus on reducing mistakes and supporting officer wellness and mental health. 

The additional focus on mistakes and wellness recognises the fact that poor mental health often leads to mistakes and misconduct.  This wider focus supports past work by the Harvard Business Institute who in 2018 suggested that simply dropping in a diversity programme won’t cut it.  Responses need to be relevant to everyone.

The ABLE curriculum contains a mix of realistic policing situations and historic psychological research which allow officers to identify inhibitors which often lead to inaction.  For example, officers discuss the infamous Stanley Milgram ‘electrocution’ experiment which looks at how authority can contribute to harm doing.  Also, a study by researchers John Darley and Bibb Latane in 1968 looked at the power of group inaction and how it can lead to a ‘diffusion of responsibility’.  Simply put ‘someone else will deal with it’.

Recent media reports about ‘WhatsApp’ groups where racist and sexist behaviour has been left unchecked suggests officers don’t feel able to speak up.  That sense of “Well if no one else is saying anything I don’t want to be seen as the troublemaker”.  These are real challenges for officers and for our profession.

The question for police leaders is “In your organisation who is harmed when we fail to see active bystanders?”  This focus on harm doing allows us to move the conversation from ‘It’s a few bad apples’ to one where we identify these officers as ‘harm doers’ causing harm to our communities, to officers and to the profession.

Bad apples suggest inevitability.  Active bystander-ship training allows us to keep these harm doers in check.

Another social experiment that is used within ABLE training is one conducted by US psychologist Ervin Staub in the 1970’s.  Here Staub’s work suggests that ‘positive evolution occurs with just one small act’.  His work identified that the action of one active bystander can lead to others getting involved.  In many ways one person can encourage others to act, action breeds action.

As said the purpose of discussing these experiments presents officers with the reality that they alone can make a difference.  This leads onto discussions about what can be done and when it can be done.  Many bystanders see intervention ‘there and then’ as the only option. Active bystander training not only provide multiple tools to act, but also ways to help officers overcome challenges that might stop them noticing that an intervention is needed in the first place.

The discussions that these programmes create are in themselves a major contributor to their success.  When researchers were asked why there had been a reduction in misconduct in New Orleans, it was suggested that by simply having these conversations officers began to reflect on past behaviours and changed.  Also, the conversations allowed the healthy norms, that we know exist in policing, to rise to the surface, providing officers with reassurance that they are more likely than not, to be supported by colleagues when intervention takes place.  It was clear also that officers were simply acting early on in incidents, so preventing issues from escalating.

Active Bystander-ship training presents opportunities and benefits for policing across the UK.  At a time when policing is under the spotlight this training would allow for us to communicate that we are working to address the suggestion that our cultures are toxic.  Importantly these trainings allow policing to make use of its strengths, teamwork, and loyalty.  When an officer needs help, it doesn’t matter their age, gender, or experience, we go don’t we?

This strength must now include the Integrity and ability to do what’s right, the moral courage to do what is needed, even when it appears scary and to have the communities and your colleague’s welfare at centre of what you do.

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