Strengthening a culture of bystandership in Colorado

Unifying what loyalty means in policing today and understanding how police officers experience the same inhibitors to intervening as everyone else


This article originally appeared in the Police1 Digital Edition, "Police Performance: Developing a Culture of Accountability." Download your copy here

By Elisa DiTrolio

The first Colorado law enforcement agency to become an ABLE agency, the Denver Police Department (DPD) is paying it forward by dedicating the resources and support necessary to bring this transformative program statewide.

EPIC program prompts discussions

The moral and legal obligation to intervene is driven into the minds of officers beginning in the academy and throughout the duration of their careers.
The moral and legal obligation to intervene is driven into the minds of officers beginning in the academy and throughout the duration of their careers. (Photo/Denver PD)

Less than one year ago, a fact sheet circulated around the department about the New Orleans PD EPIC Program, prompting discussions on whether this could be beneficial for the department. DPD had some progressive milestones already under its belt – officer wellness and peer support, a use of force policy revised in collaboration with community members, a longstanding anti-retaliation and duty to intervene policy – so, was it necessary to add another training on top of an already mounting schedule in the wake of the George Floyd protests and recent legislative changes? Would it just become an afterthought a year from now?

But EPIC, which at that time was in the process of being expanded by Georgetown University Law Center into the ABLE Program, immediately seemed different. In the height of the pandemic, virtual open houses and conferences were offered to provide more information about the program in lieu of in-person gatherings. Dr. Ervin Staub talked about years of research on why some people intervene and others do not, a police officer spoke about his father, a former police officer himself, who succumbed to alcohol abuse, and New Orleans Police Department (where EPIC originated) spoke in detail about how their department had been transformed through meaningful active bystandership training and practice.

It clicked. The moral and legal obligation to intervene is driven into the minds of officers beginning in the academy and throughout the duration of their careers. Most police departments have a duty to intervene policy and, now any police officer in Colorado who witnesses misconduct by another officer now has a legal duty to intervene.  But there was no avenue to learn and practice the skills and tactics of intervention. We haven’t been teaching officers how to intervene. Furthermore, we have been overlooking the fact that police officers experience the very same inhibitors to intervention as the rest of us.

While policing is in many ways the definition of active bystandership – officers run toward danger while most of us would likely run away – officers experience a number of powerful inhibitors to intervening to prevent mistakes, misconduct and promote wellness when it comes to their peers. Adding in the dynamics of a hierarchical organization, one might argue that inhibitors for police officers are even more pervasive. This is where holistic peer intervention training can make a difference.

ABLE requires a culture shift

Before signing up to join the growing cadre of ABLE agencies (there are more than 150 across the United States so far, including Dallas, Boston, Cleveland, Washington, Seattle, Orlando, the New York, and, of course, Denver), police departments should understand that this is not just a training. ABLE requires a culture shift, a new way of thinking and acting on loyalty that must be embraced from the bottom-up and the top-down. New Orleans PD’s peer intervention philosophy did not stop at their training academy. They incorporated and promoted EPIC in the day-to-day management of their department, and they have been successful as a result.

This is strongly echoed in conversations with ABLE leadership. The program standards required for membership into the program exist to ensure ABLE is implemented meaningfully and with fidelity. Referred to as the ‘price of admission’, it is a small price to pay (the program itself is actually free) to become skilled in preventing harm to community members, saving the lives and careers of police officers, and improving police-community relationships.

ABLE implementation

Following several months of planning – to include establishing an advisory group, selecting ABLE instructors, launching a communications campaign, and training command staff, the Denver Police Department is now in the middle of ABLE implementation. With any adoption effort, buy-in will not be achieved easily or steadily, but we have been encouraged by the number of our officers that so quickly gravitate to this new way of thinking about preventing harm. This reaction by members of the department fuels our efforts to act deliberately to integrate ABLE into the Department’s current culture.  We readily recognize that without such deliberate steps, our implementation of ABLE will not be as successful as it could be.

From left to right, Chief Paul Pazen, Deputy Chief Barb Archer, Commander Glen West who oversees the ABLE program, Division Chief of Patrol Ron Thomas, Division Chief of Administration Ron Saunier and Technician Ty Campbell.
From left to right, Chief Paul Pazen, Deputy Chief Barb Archer, Commander Glen West who oversees the ABLE program, Division Chief of Patrol Ron Thomas, Division Chief of Administration Ron Saunier and Technician Ty Campbell. (Photo/Denver PD)

Creating a network of bystandership

AS DPD continues to move forward with integrating ABLE throughout the department, it is also focusing on building a network of bystandership across Colorado. Next month, DPD will host a convening of local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies to discuss collaborating on expanding the Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement (ABLE) statewide.

At every angle – internally, from the bottom-up and the top-down, and externally, from the outside-in, the very nature of policing is at a pivotal point. While DPD is not naïve to think that ABLE will solve every problem facing law enforcement, we are confident it will play a critical role in meeting the needs of our community members AND our officers.  We also believe that ABLE will give our community members and officers further confidence that the DPD’s embrace of active bystandership is serious.  We are confident that, through ABLE and the other efforts underway within the DPD, active bystandership soon will become a routine part of everyday policing.

NEXT: Protecting officers from themselves: Tactics for self-control


About the author

Elisa DiTrolio is the ABLE program manager for the Denver Police Department. You can read more about the department’s implementation of the ABLE Program here.

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