Building an agency culture that embraces a duty to intervene
Helping other officers to avoid behaviors that put their livelihoods, emotional well-being and freedoms at risk has no downside for a department or community
The death of George Floyd was a tragedy that continues to inform the direction of the national dialog on policing practices, with a sharp focus on the duty of law enforcement officers to intervene when they observe another officer engage in what is believed to be an unconstitutional use of force.
Department policy changes and state legislation have been initiated to more specifically and intentionally address the lack of intervention illustrated by this event. Indeed, early intervention in the George Floyd case may have prevented the death of Floyd and would have certainly improved the chances for Derek Chauvin’s legal outcome.
A department infused with a culture of intervention would have provided the best opportunity for an outcome that could have mitigated the magnitude of or avoided the event altogether, as well as the ensuing trauma to the families, the nation and the law enforcement profession. To develop such a culture, agencies and officers must engage in the practice of “intervention” across a spectrum of behaviors to consistently provide improved policing interactions, policing outcomes and officer well-being. Interventions should not be understood to be specific to a use-of-force context.
Preparing officers for an intervention mindset
“Code of silence” is a term used to describe a belief that “good” police officers do not report officers involved in misconduct. At an extreme level, it is the refusal to testify – or even giving false testimony – so that another officer will not be held accountable, either internally or in a criminal prosecution.
To be clear, this “code” is one that can be seen in most strong social identity dynamics or where members of a given community rely on one another for safety – physical, economic, or emotional. In a neighborhood context, this code has been captured by the phrase “snitches get stitches” and has been problematic for holding even those who commit murder accountable. People will not talk to the police, not because they are afraid of the police – indeed, many scenes show evidence of the exact opposite, where officers are verbally lambasted and physically assaulted – but because those in the neighborhood are afraid of the person who committed the murder, or their associates.
The code is based on the belief that there will be negative consequences for exposing problematic behaviors. Indeed, entire staffs have turned a blind eye to rampant sexual harassment by politicians over a period of years and then coordinated efforts to discredit or diminish the person who brought the conduct to light. “Codes of silence” are so pervasive that legislation, in the form of whistleblower protections, exists to shield those who would report immoral, unethical, or criminal activities.
Attorneys, politicians, doctors, accountants and all manner of professions have those who are willing to let unethical or illegal behaviors slide because of an allegiance to a person or organization, or fear of consequences for reporting the behaviors. Police officers, being human, are no different – but they need to be. Expectations that police are different should be instilled from the outset of a person’s career, although this training will have little impact if the department culture they find themselves in is more concerned with protecting officers from the consequences of their behaviors than protecting them from engaging in those behaviors.
Developing a culture of intervention is a significant cognitive shift. An officer’s introduction to policing should include the fervent belief that officers should look out for one another, should help one another and should protect one another, but for those interventions to be effective, they should be on the front end of or during an incident, not in the aftermath of one.
The intervention mindset begins with the belief that the best way to protect other officers from departmental discipline, civil liability, or criminal charges is to stop them from or prevent them from potentially engaging in behaviors that could produce those types of outcomes. It should also be made abundantly clear to officers that rank is immaterial to this mindset.
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Intervention as a practical matter
The overwhelming majority of officers go to work every day intent upon doing the right things for the right reasons and making a difference in their communities. However, job-related stressors and repeated exposure to trauma take a toll.
An officer who is the epitome of professionalism day after day and year after year can have a bad moment after working one too many child sexual assaults, one too many domestic assaults, or one too many protests where they are attacked and threatened – or their families are threatened. When someone informs you that they are going to hurt your family – rape, beat, or otherwise attack them – it can cause an emotional reaction. These people, whether it be a predator or protester, are often very deliberate about saying things to cause a reaction, and when they get one, redouble their efforts in trying to elicit an emotionally charged response that they can use for their own purpose.
Significantly heightened emotional levels degrade several key components of the decision-making process. A negative emotional state negatively impacts a person’s inhibition – the ability to refrain from acting on an impulse – for example, the impulse to punch somebody, to provide an honest appraisal of the person in front of you, or to misuse positional authority.
Just as concerning is the impairment of cognitive flexibility – the ability “to acquire and integrate new information rapidly, solve problems more creatively, (and) quickly adjust responses to changing conditions” – such as recognizing that a person is deliberately pulling you into an argument, recognizing that your current behaviors are not working to end it, determining different strategies to defuse or end said argument, and then choosing a different one to implement.
This approach also has significant implications for the application of force when an officer – or suspect – is experiencing an acute stress response. Individuals experiencing an acute stress response can have a host of perceptual distortions on top of impaired executive function, including tunnel vision and audial exclusion, as their attentional capacity is entirely consumed with the task at hand. As such, intervening officers need to know that emotional responses will require that they redirect or capture the attention of the target of their intervention to effect a behavioral change. Intervention mechanisms must be put into place to ensure interventions along the spectrum of behaviors that can lead to disciplinary, civil and criminal consequences. Stages of intervention can be categorized by where they fall on the spectrum of prevention:
Practically speaking, it is best to avoid putting an officer in a position where it is more likely that they will act in a more emotionally driven or aggressive manner, such as when an officer is clearly upset when they arrive at work. This stage is the earliest form of intervention.
Recognizing that an officer is uncharacteristically angry, short-tempered, quiet, fidgety, or in any way acting in a significantly different manner than that person’s norm is a sign there is some stressor already in play. Officers experience the same family, romantic, economic and social problems as everyone else. They have sick children, marital problems, relationship issues and all manner of human stressors that can cause them to be out of sorts, which may not lead to successful or optimal outcomes when these stressors intersect with call-related stressors. Officers considerably off their baseline behaviors should be given duties where citizen contact is limited or non-existent. Do not send an angry officer to run radar. Another officer can take a call for someone who should not be interacting with the public in the short term (long-term would be an entirely different problem).
The second level of intervention is the dissuade/intercept stage. This level is applicable to the officers mentioned above, or any officer who is observed to be headed toward a negative citizen interaction.
Most officers have experienced a call where multiple units respond to a disorder outside of the local bar and arrive to see a crowd of drunken spectators watching a yelling match between two drunken individuals or friend groups. Officers arrive, separate the parties involved, endure some verbal abuse from one of the parties or someone in the crowd, resolve the conflict and send people on their way. Problem solved, no one is going to jail, it is a good outcome.
Except for the mouthy one. This is the individual who could not help but take a parting shot at an officer: “If you didn’t have that badge and gun, I would kick your ass you blankety blank blank blank!” The officer pauses for a half heartbeat, as if mulling it over, and then walks straight at the Mouth, walking with a purpose and asks a simple question, “What the @#$% did you say to me?”
Most officers have seen this and been there. Nothing good ever happens if these individuals are allowed to continue their conversation. The officer is not approaching the Mouth to assure this person that the beauty of the constitution is that it allows citizens, like himself, to be offensive, petty, unhappy and mean-spirited, without government agents infringing on the right to be so. Instead, this confrontation usually results in increased crowd engagement by all officers requiring a need to (again) restore order. Other officers on scene need to intercept the officer by redirecting them and getting the officer away from the source of stress before contact.
Disconnection becomes necessary when an officer is already engaged in an event that was ill-conceived at its inception or when an officer, who was initially or continues to be engaged in a lawful enterprise, is pulled into an interaction that is no longer constructive or no longer serves a legitimate law enforcement purpose, such as trading insults, trying to win some war of words, angrily debating points of law and defending rather than explaining actions. It can also be necessary when an officer, who is engaged in a lawful purpose, gives commands to do or unknowingly does things that are unconstitutional – ordering someone to stop filming the interaction or conducting a full search when only a limited search or "pat down" is justified, are examples.
In these cases, officers have already engaged in behaviors that may result in poor outcomes, discipline, or worse, and need to be protected from exacerbating things. In essence, you extract the officer from a bad or potentially bad situation.
Disconnection/extraction is designed to minimize damage already committed or prevent an interaction from escalating to a point where negative outcomes have an improbably high likelihood. If an officer arrives to back up another on a traffic stop and hears, “Keep running your mouth and see what happens!” or arrives to back up an officer on a loud noise complaint and observes the officer, finger jabbing and spittle flying, neck bulging, eyes wide, physically crowding a juvenile, their faces inches apart, those officers likely need to be emotionally or physically disconnected or extracted, respectively, from the situation.
Similarly, a person in custody who poses no immediate threat can be positioned in the recovery position or up to a seated position. If this has not been done, a reminder to do this from another officer is consistent with the disconnect/extract concept.
This is the final level of the intervention spectrum, where an officer physically obstructs or stops the behaviors of another officer. It is imperative that the impeding officer fully understand the context and threat another officer is facing before physically trying to stop the officer.
In the intercept context, impeding an officer from reaching a citizen may be necessary if the officer cannot be dissuaded verbally; an officer can simply block another’s path, grab an arm, or hold the person back. In the extract context, verbal intervention may not work, and the same types of physical interventions can be employed. An active use of force situation is different if the intervening officer is arriving to an ongoing event and does not understand the context of the force or the possibility of an ongoing threat. In this dynamic, the intervening officer must communicate with the officer using force – absent clear and convincing personal observation that the subject of force is not an immediate threat.
As an example, officers arrive back to the same bar for another disorder and are momentarily pulled in different directions, losing contact with one another. A commotion and yelling ensue, and Officer A runs across the parking lot to see Officer B pinning a person against an SUV and delivering repeated knee strikes to the subject. The subject appears to be bent over while attempting to fend off the knee strikes. Officer A cannot just rush in and push officer B away from the subject without knowing why Officer B is applying force – again, absent officer A observing that the subject does not pose an immediate threat to Officer B. Keeping in mind that both Officer B and the subject are likely experiencing some level of cognitive and perceptual decline/impairment, Officer A must have a mechanism to capture B’s attention long enough to redirect some cognitive resources, so that Officer B can communicate the threat (or lack of threat). Once this occurs, Officer B can down-regulate or Officer A can physically intervene if appropriate, or Officer A can assist Officer B with an ongoing threat.
Leadership and intervention culture
The level of intervention that is most readily addressed in policy and legislation is the duty to intervene as it relates to “excessive” use of force or even force outside of policy. This can become problematic as agencies rush to move beyond the Graham standard of reasonableness.
Leadership can mitigate this by ensuring agency policies are fully understood by officers, as words like “necessary,” “minimum” and “all other viable options” will mean different things to different people, especially when viewed considering an officer’s experience, competencies, confidence and abilities as influenced by fatigue, fear and environmental conditions, among others. Leadership can help promote an intervention culture by adhering to the following principles:
- Model behaviors consistent with valuing intervention endeavors regardless of rank or experience level, as one cannot say that there is an expectation to intervene and then communicate the opposite by punishing or ridiculing the officer who does so, and acting when concern for an officer is reported.
- Ensure that intervention is understood to be an ongoing endeavor with opportunities to protect officers from themselves throughout their tours of duty.
- Provide meaningful, scenario-based training in all levels of intervention so that the mechanisms designed as safeguards for officers are well understood. This training should be designed to deflect antagonistic remarks from citizens and inoculate officers to them.
- Make clear the use of force policy so that there is no ambiguity about what each standard means or how the standard will be evaluated.
- For tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving events, provide a phrase or code that will draw an officers’ attention, giving them an opportunity to re-evaluate or communicate what they are doing – or a similar mechanism that serves the same purpose. This is easily integrated into defensive tactics training.
Intervention, although infrequently needed, is an essential component of protecting other officers and can be implemented across a spectrum of policing interactions. The names used for the types of interventions in this piece are immaterial, every agency can create their own, so long as the concepts are embraced by an agency.
Helping other officers to avoid behaviors that put their livelihoods, emotional well-being and freedoms at risk has no downside for the department or the community. In fact, if an officer does not welcome an intervention that would do so, that person is likely in policing for the wrong reasons.