A look at NOPD's innovative and career-saving EPIC peer intervention program
EPIC gives New Orleans police officers the strategies and tools they need to step in and prevent problems before they occur
By Jonathan Aronie
A few years back, I watched a police use of force that has stuck with me. A detained suspect was verbally abusing a patrol officer. After enduring five minutes of despicable racial slurs, and becoming noticeably angrier with each repulsive epithet, the officer finally lost his cool and punched the suspect in the face.
Four other officers were present, and all watched it happen. None stepped in to de-escalate the situation at any time. Not one officer suggested to the target of the racist slurs that he should step back from the suspect or leave the room, or simply take a breath. No one had that “courageous conversation.” They all just watched. Following the punch, not one of the officers stood up to his/her colleagues and said, “We should report this.”
All five officers ultimately lost their jobs, their chosen careers, their income and probably more.
If just one of the officers in the room had been taught what it means to be an “active bystander,” the whole, sad affair could have been avoided. Had one officer in that room been given the skills to intervene effectively and safely (either before the punch was thrown, or at least before the decision not to report the incident was made), all five careers likely would have been saved. Considering the abuse he was taking, even the officer who punched the detainee probably would not have lost his job.
The whole incident was very frustrating – from the excessive use of force, to the bad decision-making, to the unnecessary cessation of five promising careers.
Shortly after my 2013 appointment by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana to serve as Monitor over the New Orleans Police Department, following the City’s entry into a far-reaching federal consent decree, I made two promises to the citizens of New Orleans and to the officers charged with protecting and serving them. First, I promised I would be a fair, honest and vocal critic when the NOPD’s performance was sub-par. Second, I promised I would be an equally fair, honest and vocal advocate when NOPD did something worthy of praise. I am writing this article to honor that second promise.
EPIC: “ETHICAL POLICING IS COURAGEOUS”
In early 2016, recognizing that events like the one above happen all too often in departments across the country, a number of NOPD officers – with full support from NOPD management and the community – created a program called EPIC.
EPIC stands for Ethical Policing Is Courageous, and is a program like none I have seen in the United States. EPIC is a department-wide peer intervention program (actually it is more a philosophy than a program), crafted to harness the abilities of rank-and-file officers to serve as the first line of defense in preventing mistakes and misconduct among their peers.
EPIC empowers and gives police officers the strategies and tools they need to step in and prevent problems before they occur; and then protects those officers who have the courage to apply those strategies and tools in the field.
EPIC is not a discipline program or a “rat-on-your-colleagues” program. EPIC is a practical prevention program tailored to the reality that officers too often lose their careers to misconduct that could have been avoided.
In designing EPIC, the men and women of the NOPD started by asking themselves a simple question: Why are officers so quick to risk their lives for their peers, but so slow to stop them before they do something that may end their career?
In the words of Mark Twain, why is it that “physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare”?
ACTIVE AND PASSIVE BYSTANDERS
To answer these questions, the NOPD brought in some of the nation’s leading thinkers on the topic of “active bystandership” to form a working group along with police officers.
An “active bystander” intervenes when he or she sees something happening or about to happen that is wrong. “Passive bystanders” fail to intervene for various reasons. They may be afraid they are interpreting the situation incorrectly, or they think it is not their job to intervene, or they have a misplaced sense of loyalty to a colleague. The EPIC training attacks these “inhibitors” to intervention head-on.
Passive bystandership not only allows bad things to happen; it also has a corrosive effect on standards. If no one intervenes to stop misconduct, it creates a sense that the misconduct is normal behavior, resulting in more misconduct.
The NOPD’s working group included a psychologist, a historian who has studied passive bystandership during the Holocaust and other international atrocities, the author of a forward-thinking policing text, community members, police association members, and officers at all levels.
The resulting peer intervention solution revolves around five simple goals:
1. Help officers understand the career-saving benefits of intervention and the huge risks (including the growing legal risks) of non-intervention.
2. Help officers identify the signs that an intervention is necessary.
3. Teach officers how to intervene effectively and safely.
4. Teach officers how and why to respectfully accept intervention.
5. Protect officers who intervene and those who accept intervention.
The NOPD pursues these goals through training at all levels – recruit training, in-service and roll calls. The training teaches peer intervention science, skills and strategies through a multi-media approach.
As part of the training, officers participate in a number of role-playing scenarios that simulate the situations that present a need for intervention and the common inhibitors to action.
Just as with firearms simulation-based training, the NOPD’s peer intervention scenario-based training is designed to give officers a tactical advantage in the field, and prepare them to deal with the potentially career-ending situations they will be called upon to handle over the course of their time in blue.
NOPD’s peer intervention philosophy does not stop at the Academy gate. The Department has called upon each of its leaders to incorporate and promote EPIC within their units. So far, each is answering the call.
The Department’s Internal Affairs function, for example, has taken a meaningful step in this direction by adding successful peer intervention as a formal mitigating factor against any related misconduct – both for the intervenor and for the officer who was intervened upon. (Of course, as in the example that began this essay, had intervention come early enough, there would have been no misconduct to report in the first place.)
Peer intervention programs are not a 21st century invention. The medical, airline and education professions have been applying peer intervention techniques for years. The military likewise has embraced this philosophy. Elementary schools, high schools and universities have figured out that peer intervention programs are an effective tool for combating bullying, sexual abuse and mental health issues. However, few law enforcement agencies have realized the advantages of giving officers these same career-saving and life-saving tools. New Orleans’ EPIC program fully embraces peer intervention at all levels of the department.
THE COMMUNITY BENEFITS
NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison, a champion of the Department’s EPIC program, applauds his officers for developing such an innovative program. Harrison sees EPIC not only as a career-saving tool, but as a life-saving tool.
“As police officers, we operate in a highly stressful environment,” Harrison said. “As a profession, we suffer from depression, alcoholism, family problems and suicide more than most other professions. EPIC will help us all recognize the moments when that stress is getting the better of one of our colleagues, and will give us the courage and the tools to step in and offer help. I believe the program will save families and lives.”
While the NOPD presents EPIC to its members as an officer survival program, EPIC is just as much a community survival program. In the same way airline passengers benefit when a co-pilot says to a pilot, “I think you’re coming in too low; recheck your gauges,” the community benefits when one officer says to another, “I know you’re frustrated (or mad, or scared), but don’t do what you are about to do.”
NOPD EPIC Project Manager Jacob Lundy, an NOPD veteran and ranking member of the local Fraternal Order of Police chapter, views EPIC as the “perfect win-win strategy,” because “the community and the department clearly benefit when mistakes and misconduct are prevented.”
In sum, NOPD’s EPIC program reflects an astute realization that intervention techniques can be taught like any other policing strategy. The men and women of the NOPD deserve great credit for their development of this innovative solution to a vexing national problem.
I have little doubt the New Orleans peer intervention program soon will become a national model – the New Orleans Model. Officers simply cannot afford not to take active steps to protect their own careers, their families and their chosen profession. The community cannot afford it either.
Jonathan Aronie is a partner in the internal investigations and civil fraud practice group of Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton, LLP in Washington DC. In August 2013, Jonathan was appointed by the U.S. District Court for the District of Louisiana to lead the monitoring team over the NOPD Consent Decree. In addition to Aronie, the NOPD Monitoring Team includes five former police chiefs, two criminologists, and a former civil rights prosecutor.