NOPD'S INNOVATIVE APPROACH TO SAVING POLICE CAREERS
BY JONATHAN ARONIE  |  Sheppard Mullin Richter and Hampton



EDITOR’S NOTE:  The NOPD and Loyola University New Orleans School of Law are holding their Second Annual Executive Leadership Conference on Police Peer Intervention in New Orleans on June 20 and 21.  Registration information can be obtained from renee@eventsno.com. For the full article with footnotes, please see the link at the bottom of the page.

The New Orleans community’s satisfaction with their Police Department has been on a steady ascent over the past few years.  Compared to a city-wide baseline survey conducted in 2014, by 2016 “community members had better perceptions of their most recent contact with the NOPD, were more satisfied with the department, had higher ratings of trust, and reported being more willing to cooperate with NOPD.”  A different, but more recent, community survey found a continuation of this trend, with the NOPD’s satisfaction rating among community members bumping up four points between 2016 and 2018.  During more or less this same time period (2013 through 2018), the NOPD also saw a 30% decrease in civilian complaints against police officers.

While these trends are significant in their own right, they are truly remarkable considering, less than 10 years ago, the NOPD was described as a broken department by the U.S. Department of Justice.  In a lengthy report following a comprehensive, multi-year investigation of alleged civil rights abuses, the DOJ concluded the NOPD had “long been a troubled agency,” with “[b]asic elements of effective policing. . . absent for years.”  Today, NOPD is a changed, and in many ways model, law enforcement agency. 

There are many factors that have contributed to NOPD’s ongoing transformation, among them scores of rewritten policies, a wholly revamped training program, better supervision, and a new leadership team sincerely committed to righting the wrongs of the past.  But there is another contributor that has received somewhat less attention.  In 2016, the men and women of the NOPD, working with a small group of psychologists, historians, and community stakeholders, developed and implemented the nation’s first department-wide police peer intervention program focused on preventing mistakes and misconduct before they occur.


Ethical Policing Is Courageous (EPIC)

The program, called EPIC (for Ethical Policing Is Courageous) is highly innovative yet stunningly simple.  The program teaches officers (from recruits to leadership) strategies and tactics to intervene safely and effectively in another officer’s conduct, regardless of rank, if necessary to prevent a regrettable action.  It helps officers:

  • Identify the warning signs of conduct for which an intervention may be necessary,
  • Understand the power a thoughtful intervention can play in preventing mistakes or misconduct,
  • Gain the confidence to intervene when necessary,
  • Gain the skills to intervene when necessary,
  • Take responsibility for acting, and
  • Actually take meaningful and safe action.

The interpersonal tools EPIC provides in furtherance of these goals are based on years of academic research into what is called “active bystandership” and “passive bystandership,” and can be used by officers to help prevent misconduct, prevent a mistake, or even lead a colleague in need of health or wellness services to seek help.  EPIC also fosters an environment where such an intervention not only is welcome, but is expected. 

The EPIC program grew out of a realization by the NOPD that pushing officers to report problems after they occur, while an essential and noble goal, often is difficult to achieve in practice with any sort of consistency.  Experience tells us that training programs that focus only on reporting and discipline often put officers in an untenable position (or at least the perceived position) of having to either (a) do the right thing and, perhaps, be labeled a rat, or (b) stay silent and put one’s career (if not freedom) at risk.  By focusing on prevention rather than reporting and discipline, EPIC seeks to keep officers from ending up between that rock and hard place.  

In many ways, of course, EPIC is not new.  Good police officers have been willing to speak up and keep bad things from happening for decades.  And certainly, officers intervene every day to protect civilians from harm, often putting their lives on the line to do so.  But an officer intervening effectively and early enough to prevent another officer’s conduct (or misconduct) is less common than one might think.  Indeed, if it were otherwise, we wouldn’t see 1,100 police officers arrested each year, significantly more citizen complaints and disciplinary actions, and countless officers putting themselves, their colleagues, or the community at risk through preventable mistakes. 

The Cost of Not Intervening

the cost of “passive bystandership” in policing is immense.  Obviously, on one level, mistakes and misconduct cost law enforcement agencies and their cities untold millions of dollars in investigations, litigations, and settlements.  Long Beach, California, for example, a city of only 470,000 people (at the time of a 2013 analysis), was paying more than $3 million annually in damages to resolve police mistakes and misconduct.  New York City, at the other end of the population spectrum, has paid out about $384 million to resolve such cases in the last five years alone.  Certainly these costs cannot all be laid at the feet of bystanders, but unquestionably some material component of these costs could have been avoided by more effective “active bystandership” among police officers themselves.

The cost of misconduct and preventable mistakes goes well beyond the cost of litigation and settlements.  A police department with a poor reputation of integrity and/or competence will have problems recruiting, retaining good officers, and even fighting crime.  A culture of errors and misconduct lead to a loss of morale and diminished job satisfaction.  And, of course, the impact on civilians — the police department’s actual customers — in terms of emotional stress, lack of trust, and, in some cases, actual physical harm, can be huge.  Indeed, the collective cost of those consequences almost certainly dwarfs the cost of settlements and litigation.

And none of this even touches on the social cost to the officers themselves.  Individuals who witness mistakes and misconduct and do nothing to prevent them put themselves at great risk of emotional and psychological stress.  Non-intervening observers of preventable sexual assaults, for example, can carry that burden with them for years.   There is every reason to believe “passive bystandership” in the context of police mistakes and/or misconduct takes a similar emotional toll on the non-intervening police officer.

The Psychology Of Peer Intervention

Unfortunately, when we talk about preventing mistakes and misconduct in law enforcement, the first thing that comes to most people’s minds are the notorious examples caught on film over the past quarter century of police officers failing to take action in the face of another officer’s use of excessive force.  The officers standing passively by during the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991 probably is the example that comes most readily to mind.  While the men and women of the NOPD certainly had the King case in mind when they developed their EPIC program, they also had in mind the more common, albeit less sensational, scenarios in which officers more commonly find themselves. 

While a police officer may go through his or her entire career without witnessing an excessive use of force, very few officers will make it very far without witnessing some preventable negative behavior by another officer, be it a mistake or misconduct.  Maybe it’s a partner ready to “teach a suspect a lesson” following a foot pursuit.  Or a colleague about to lose his/her cool in the face of a verbally abusive arrestee.  Maybe a supervisor seems inclined to leave certain details out of a police report.  Or maybe a colleague is intent on driving him/herself home after one too many post-shift drinks.  These are just some of the scenarios real police officers face in the real world.  And, as most of us know from experience, each of these scenarios has the potential of going from bad to worse with an ill-thought-out intervention.

For some, intervening in another’s conduct comes easy.  But the truth is most of us do not fall within that category.  For most of us, intervening in another’s conduct, at least in some cases, can be difficult, frightening, or even dangerous.  Some of us go so far as to turn the other way or even walk out of the room to avoid having to intervene at all.  As a result, we (all of us — including police officers) come up with all manner of excuses, either consciously or subconsciously, for not taking on the role of an active bystander.  Experts call these excuses “inhibitors.”  And they include these all-too-familiar mental rationales:

  • I’m not sure what is happening.
  • It’s not my responsibility.
  • Someone else will do it.
  • Someone else will do it better than I.
  • I don’t know all the facts.
  • What if I get it wrong?
  • What if I get hurt?
  • What if they think I’m not a team player?
  • What if I piss him/her off?
  • No one else is doing anything.
  • It’s not my job.

Psychologists have studied these inhibitors for decades.  They are powerful.  They are commonplace.  And, while some of us overcome them better than others, almost none of us is completely immune from them. 

We also know from years of research, that inaction begets inaction.  Witnesses to mistakes and misconduct consciously or subconsciously look around to assess the reactions of others.  Where they see their peers — or worse, their superiors — not taking action, they naturally think no action needs to be taken.  As one observer put it in the context of preventable sexual assault on college campuses, witnesses “may look around for cues to see if others define it as an emergency, and seeing none, do nothing.”

Teaching Peer Intervention

For years, police agencies — like other organizations, from hospitals to universities to the military — have dealt with these inhibitors to active bystandership by downplaying them, pretending they are not real, or deceiving themselves into thinking police officers are uniquely capable of overcoming them.  At the same time, many “reform” programs too often treat officers as perpetrators, prompting a knee-jerk “I don’t do that so this doesn’t apply to me” reaction.  As mistakes and misconduct in policing have not gone down dramatically over the past decade, it is clear that the traditional approach is not working.  Human nature is what it is.  Wishing it away won’t make it go away.

Rather than trying to command people to put aside human nature, the NOPD took a different tack with its EPIC program.  EPIC acknowledges the very real reasons people (including police) do not consistently intervene in a peer’s (let alone a superior’s) conduct, and arms its officers with practical strategies, tactics, and confidence to overcome them.  NOPD’s EPIC training combines decades of social science research with commonplace law enforcement scenarios to give officers practical and effective tools to keep their colleagues and the public safe by preventing problems before they occur.

The Success of EPIC

While it’s hard to quantify the success of NOPD’s EPIC program — because, in most cases, an effective intervention means nothing happens — NOPD leaders, rank and file, and outside observers have seen its success with their own eyes.  They also have seen the program embraced by all stakeholders, including the officers themselves, the City, and the public.  NOPD also has seen significant national interest in its EPIC program.  Over the last two years, EPIC has been featured in IACP’s Police Chief Magazine, PERF’s Subject to Debate, The Washington Post, The Times Picayune, and the New York Times.  Clearly, word of EPIC is getting out. 

Last year, more than 75 professionals from across the U.S., including police chiefs, command staff, academy directors, and union officials, attended a two-day EPIC Executive Leadership Conference at Loyola University New Orleans School of Law.  The conference, sponsored by the NOPD, the Fraternal Order of Police, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, drew attendees from as far away as Honolulu.  The conference organizers expect between 100-150 attendees at this year’s second annual conference, scheduled for June 20-21 in New Orleans. 

The NOPD also has seen interest in its EPIC program expand well beyond the Crescent City.  The FBI now incorporates peer intervention in its already-impressive National Academy curriculum.  Springfield, Massachusetts provides peer intervention training to its officers.  Richmond, Virginia is in the process of rolling out an EPIC-style program.  And now, as was reported in The Washington Post, NOPD’s recently-departed superintendent is bringing EPIC with him to Baltimore. 

EPIC:  A Win/Win Strategy

The national attention EPIC has been receiving should not come as a surprise to anyone.  While historic reform efforts often are embraced either by police or the public, few seem to draw across-the-board support from all stakeholders.  EPIC is different, perhaps because EPIC is all upside.  There is almost nothing negative one could say about teaching officers a new career-saving skill.  It’s not a policy.  It’s not a rule.  It doesn’t label police officers as bad apples or prompt knee-jerk defensiveness.  It doesn’t depend on officers having super-human moral courage to buck human nature.  It brings with it no new reporting obligations.  And it imposes no new obligations on or disciplinary opportunities against police officers.  EPIC simply is a tool that provides officers with a more effective and safer way to prevent mistakes and misconduct among their peers.  It’s facilitated by a culture that embraces active bystandership as the most sincere form of loyalty to a colleague.  The more officers who incorporate EPIC tools into their daily routines, the more careers will be saved.  And everyone wins — the officers, the department, the city, and the public. 



FULL ARTICLE with footnotes

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:


JONATHAN ARONIE

Jonathan Aronie is a partner in the Washington, DC office of Sheppard Mullin, and the co-leader of the firm’s Internal Investigations Practice Group.  In 2013, Jonathan was appointed by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana to serve as the Federal Monitor over the New Orleans Police Department Consent Decree.  




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