‘I’ve got your 6’: The value of officer intervention training

Throughout our police careers, we are told to intervene if we see another officer doing something wrong or illegal, but it is unclear exactly what we should do


By Haywood Irving

Video posted on social media shows three police officers involved in a fight with an out-of-control suspected drunk driver. The officers are struggling on the ground with the suspect; one officer has him in a headlock. The suspect can be heard saying, “I can’t breathe.” Other officers quickly shout to the officer applying the headlock, “Stop, he can't breathe.”

After the officer is repeatedly told to release the headlock but fails to do so, one officer gets up and pulls the officer away from the suspect. The officer who intervened, and the police department, is later praised by the public and city leaders for their swift intervention, potentially saving the life of the suspect and the career of his fellow officer.

We need to expand police training to include “use of intervention” training. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins, File)
We need to expand police training to include “use of intervention” training. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins, File)

This type of news report starts in a way in which we have become too familiar, although not with the outcome we see above. Although the public calls for cops to stop other cops from "abusing" a suspect, is it realistic to expect officers to intervene with others in the heat of combat? It is if they have their “six.”

Blind spots

From the first day of the police academy, it is ingrained in us that we protect our fellow officers to the extent that we will sacrifice our lives for each other.

There are many phrases we use: “I’ve got your back,” “I got you” and “I’ve got your six.” The latter means your “six,” the blind spot behind you that you cannot see, I have that covered to protect you.

The other, less obvious blind spot we all share is not intervening when a fellow officer is doing something wrong. With the profession of policing on life support, we must rethink what “having each other’s six” means.

A pivotal moment

The law enforcement profession is facing a pivotal moment in its history. How leaders and the rank and file respond will determine the fate of policing in America.

Those with an agenda feeding the 24/7 news cycle have a narrative they are putting out for which the death of George Floyd provided the perfect optics. We must have a seat at the table to add truth to the narrative and discuss how we will improve police decision-making.

One critical area we can improve in is learning proper intervention techniques so that when another officer loses control and faces a potentially career-ending event, our intervention can be decisive and immediate to cover their “six.”

Applying New “I’ve Got Your Six” Techniques

Throughout our police careers, we are told to intervene if we see another officer doing something wrong or illegal, but it is unclear exactly what we should do. Most often, we are told to tell a supervisor. In some circumstances, though, the immediacy and gravity of the circumstance warrant immediate intervention, including physically stopping an officer from an unwarranted punch, chokehold, or inappropriate use of a TASER.

Sometimes in the heat of a call, we have a cognitive blind spot induced by emotions or circumstances that cause us not to see or mentally process the words we are using, the attitude we are projecting, or the force we are using. On those rare occasions where an officer's anger or emotions have taken over and their behavior becomes excessive or unlawful, we must be willing to enter two new areas of ‘I’ve got your six’:

  • "I've got your six, I’ll save your career."
  • "I've got your six, I’ll save your freedom."

These are gravely needed to protect us from the “new normal” of arresting officers on the spot, robbing them of due process. One tool we can use to change this reality is for officers to become “active bystanders” whenever the use of force occurs.

Developing new arrest and control training

Dr. Ervin Staub studied the roots of violence between groups after living through the horrors of Nazism and then communism in Hungary. Staub was invited to create an active bystander training program for the LAPD after the Rodney King incident and assist with the New Orleans Police Department’s EPIC (Ethical Policing is Courageous) training. Georgetown Law's Project ABLE (Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement) peer intervention program is also built on Staub’s research.

Staub studied how violence progressively evolves and found that most people are “passive bystanders” assuming no responsibility for the actions of others. “Active bystanders” on the other hand, speak up and act, stepping in to stop harmful behavior when they see it.

Part of Staub’s training is to conduct live role-playing scenarios of an incident that gets so out of control that it requires one officer to physically intervene to stop the actions of another officer. Imagine what would happen if a simple intervention like that was widely praised by the media and community? What if this quick and simple intervention saved lives and reduced injuries? How would this change the dialogue regarding the police once the public knows they have become active bystanders as a norm of their routines?

We already have scenario training, such as shoot or don’t shoot on the range, use of force simulators and role-playing simunition training. Officers already receive classroom training on requirements and policies for officers to intervene. We need to expand that training to include “use of intervention” training.

This scenario-based “use of intervention” training will put officers in circumstances where they will have to identify if intervention is needed, what type of intervention is appropriate and if intervention needs to become physical. Repetition through various scenarios is key to building the mental and muscle memory to ensure officers will fall back on their “use of intervention” training under stress. As such, it should become part of a department's perishable skills training along with firearms, EVOC and first aid training.

A first step is to ensure an appropriate intervention policy exists, and then train to that standard. If there is no department policy regarding peer intervention and training, a department needs to develop one that has the endorsement of both officers and the community they serve.

The final part of the intervention process is to debrief after the peer intervention. The objective is the restoration of the “I got your six” bond between the officer intervening, and the one whose actions were intervened. This debrief is itself an intervention to deal with any animosity that might arise toward the intervening officer.

Conclusion

On October 19, 2006, myself and several officers had the “six” of two officers who had been shot as we moved into an active shooter scene and rescued them. We in law enforcement must equally have each other’s “six” when it comes to our careers and freedom with a culture of being “active bystanders.”

Public trust is a key component to policing and without it we cannot effectively serve those we have sworn to protect. Active bystander intervention, not only as part of the training, but a part of the culture of policing, can be the catalyst to a new era of trust, pride and admiration toward law enforcement.

WATCH: Duty to intercede: Conceptual, cultural and legal aspects


About the author

Haywood Irving has been with the Fresno (California) Police Department for 23 years and is currently a detective. He worked patrol for the first eight years of his career, three of them as a Field Training Officer. He was assigned to a District Crime Suppression Team for six and has been a detective for the past nine years where he has worked robberies, property crimes, hate crimes and crimes against persons. He has received numerous commendations, including the Medal of Valor Under Mortal danger leading an ad hoc rescue team of officers who responded to two officers that had been shot while under fire from the suspect. He served in the United States Air Force for six years achieving the rank of Staff Sergeant.

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