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How peer intervention training improves policing — and citizens' trust

REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
Police officers have always been dependent on the collective wisdom and knowledge of partners, senior officers, supervisors, detectives and crime-scene specialists.

I am a retired Minneapolis police sergeant, author of a text on police ethics, and author of a police ethics program based on active bystandership. Around two years before the disaster at the Metro Gang Strike Force became public, one of its officers came to me and said he was leaving the strike force because of the illegal and unethical conduct of a few members. This officer told me that supervisors were aware of the misconduct and refused to stop it. His final comment to me was “Someone is going to end up in prison and I don’t want it to be me.” Turns out he had a right to be worried.

Michael W. Quinn

None of those officers went to prison, but that hasn’t been the case for a lot of officers. The Cato Institute reported that in an 18-month period from 2009-2010, out of the 800,000-plus sworn officers in the U.S. there were 3,238 officers criminally charged, 1,063 convictions and 382 were incarcerated for an average period of 34.6 months. During that same time frame, there were 288 reported officer suicides and 112 officers killed in the line of duty because of a felonious attack. Those 3,238 made up less than ½ of 1 percent of the total sworn officers.

It is a given that there are a lot of officer misconduct events that never rise to the level of criminal misconduct, but it is impossible to track those events accurately. It is also a given that most police officers work very hard to do this job the right way. It is and always has been just a few that have caused all the mayhem because they were not held accountable by their supervisors or their fellow officers for the small acts that led up to the criminal conduct; and therein lies the problem. We fail our fellow officers, ethically and legally, when we fail to stop their misconduct or hold them accountable.

Minnesota has some of the best educated officers in the United States, possibly the world. Our state has spent over $600,000 for police training that has yet to produce a single day of training to prevent what happened at the gang strike force. There is another way.

New Orleans' experience

In 2011, the New Orleans Police Department was about to be placed under a consent decree because of the wild and outrageous conduct of some of its officers. Officers were being charged with killing other officers and suspects in custody, among other things. I was invited to New Orleans to meet with civil-rights attorneys and community members to provide some insight into how I could run two plainclothes/undercover units, the robbery decoy unit and repeat offender program, in the MPD for three years without a single complaint of excessive force, misconduct, foul language, racial profiling, testilying, or any of the other misconduct issues that plague undercover units. The answer was and is simple: Clear standards of accountability and peer intervention. We did not let our fellow officers do something that could bring dishonor to ourselves, our family or the badge. In today’s lingo, it would be called active bystandership or peer intervention. In 1987-1989, we just called it good police work.

After several years of meetings in New Orleans I was tasked by a working group to develop a class on peer intervention based on the active bystandership principles taught by Ervin Staub. I taught the first “train the trainer peer intervention class” to the New Orleans Police Department in March of 2016. It has been hugely successful as part of a reorganization that included a new police chief, body cameras, and stricter accountability. They call their peer intervention program “EPIC — Ethical Policing Is Courageous,” and it has been featured in the New York Times and other prominent publications. It would be more accurate to say that “ethical policing is contagious.” Staub, one of the working group members, has documented that just knowing that it is permissible to be an active bystander and intervene changes the dynamics of a situation and makes people more likely to intervene. His research showed that it really is contagious and New Orleans is proof of that.

I have been a guest lecturer and expert witness on police ethics and accountability across the U.S. and Canada. My experience in law enforcement training tells me that the problem of police/community relations is not the result of a lack of education. It is about police officers and administrators not holding each other accountable.

Teach intervention

Armed with a knowledge of the law and the tools necessary to do the job, police officers have always been dependent on the collective wisdom and knowledge of partners, senior officers, supervisors, detectives and crime-scene specialists. “You couldn’t make this up” is an everyday experience in policing as evidenced by the number of police encounters that end up in the courts, taking months or even years for men and women learned in the law to decide whether the police made the right decision, seldom unanimously. You couldn’t design a class for Minnesota officers that will improve police conduct based on a better knowledge of the law. You can, however, change the way officers think about their legal and moral responsibilities to other officers, and the families of those officers. You can teach them to intervene in another officer’s behavior, and more important, you can teach them to allow an intervention. New Orleans has seen a significant reduction in their officer use of force complaints. They are regaining the trust of their communities. Minnesota can do the same.

Peer Intervention for Law Enforcement is being offered by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Although BCA training is restricted to law enforcement officers, all stakeholders in the community should be involved in peer intervention training. This is a class in survival, for citizens and officers alike. And it will not cost another six hundred, three hundred, or even 100 thousand dollars to make that happen. 

Michael W. Quinn is chairman of the Inver Hills Community College Law Enforcement Advisory Board, a retired Minneapolis police sergeant, and CEO of the International Ethics and Leadership Training Bureau, LLC. 

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