By SHANNON O. WELLS
While working as an officer with the Miami-Dade Police Department in Florida, a close friend of Pitt Police Chief James Loftus refused to take part in a criminal theft operation his fellow officers initiated. Telling his colleagues what they were doing was wrong, the officer reported the malfeasance to his supervisors.
While this led to firings and even indictments, the officer’s do-goodism did not bode well for a healthy working relationship with his fellow officers during his remaining years on the force.
“There are people who didn’t want to work with him,” Loftus explained. “When he was taking a traffic stop, they would interfere with his radio traffic so that he couldn’t transmit well. They didn’t want to back him up in certain (situations) because he had this stigma of being someone who couldn’t be trusted because he had stepped outside of what their perception was of ‘the brotherhood.’ Now, there is no brotherhood among thieves, whether they’re wearing uniforms or not. And he absolutely did the right thing. But he paid a pretty heavy price for that for years and years and years.”
Preventing such situations is a key reason why Loftus welcomes Pitt Police’s participation in the Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement (ABLE) Project with open arms. The Georgetown University Law-based program is designed to prepare officers to successfully intervene to “prevent harm” and create a “law enforcement culture that supports peer intervention,” according to ABLE’s mission statement. As a national hub for training, technical assistance and research, ABLE seeks to create police culture where officers are prepared and comfortable intervening as necessary to: prevent misconduct, avoid police mistakes, and promote officer health and wellness.
Duty to intervene
With its own duty-to-intervene policy in place since December 2019, Pitt Police implemented the more thorough ABLE Project’s scenario-based training and tools for intervention in spring 2021. Pitt community members including the Black Action Society and University Senate provided letters to Georgetown Law supporting Pitt’s participation in the program, said Pitt Police Lt. Brooke Riley, an ABLE program trainer along with Officers Jamie Cunningham and Dan Trimbur.
“By demonstrating a firm commitment to transformational reform with support from local community groups and elected leaders, (Pitt Police) joined a select group of more than 70 other law enforcement agencies and statewide and regional training academies from across the country,” Riley said, adding that her fellow instructors “represent the department’s core values. I’m very proud of the good and hard work they have done to implement this program.”
Loftus said ABLE appealed to him as an alternative to the seniority- and military-based policing structure he’d worked within throughout his 39-year career.
“The emphasis has always been on the responsibilities of a sergeant to make sure they know what their people are doing, that they’re doing the administrative things they need to do,” he said, “but maybe more importantly, that they’re out there with their (peers) … participating in the policing process, and guiding and directing their personnel as needed. So much of police work for centuries has been about that first-line supervisor.”
Loftus cited the infamous May 2020 arrest incident in Minneapolis, Minn., when police officer Derek Chauvin held his knee against petty crime suspect George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes while fellow officers either joined in or looked on. After Floyd’s death, Chauvin was dismissed from the Minneapolis Police Department, convicted of murder and manslaughter and sentenced to prison in 2021.
“And then (ABLE) comes along,” Loftus said. “What we saw in Minneapolis was the general reluctance of officers of a similar rank to step in and intervene. We’re big into the ‘rookie culture,’ (where if) you’re a rookie, it’s best that you’re seen and not heard. That has been kind of the structure of police work forever. This is the first program and, to my knowledge, still the only program that’s out there that kind of does away with that particular practice.”
Pitt officers from every branch now go through ABLE practices during their initial block of training.
“When new officers join the ranks, this training is part of their onboarding process,” Riley noted. “This year, officers will also receive a two-hour update from ABLE Project instructors. Officers train in the scenarios that any person may need peer intervention based on the issue at hand. It doesn’t matter whether (they are) supervisors, tenured officers or a new officer. Officers are instructed and practice that it is their duty to intervene regardless of rank.”
ABLE was built upon training developed by Ervin Staub, emeritus professor of psychology at University of Massachusetts–Amherst, who founded a program to help police officers stop fellow officers’ potentially harmful behavior. He established the Ethical Policing is Courageous (EPIC) Peer Intervention Program with the New Orleans Police Department, which Georgetown Law crafted into practical, scenario-based training to guide police agencies in peer-intervention tactics.
Jamie Cunningham, one of the Pitt officers involved in ABLE-based training, said the benefits to the department and campus culture are multi-faceted. “ABLE empowers officers and gives them the tools to intervene effectively without negative confrontation with other officers of higher rank or same rank,” she said. “Holding each other accountable for our actions and intervening before or during an incident will prevent officer mistakes and reduce misconduct.”
The expected reduction in the use of force-oriented complaints, disciplinary actions and community complaints, she added, “will help build a better police department and police-community relationships. When having interactions with officers trained in CIT (Critical Incident Training) and ABLE, the Pitt community will see officers go beyond their duties as a law enforcement officer.”
Chief Loftus said officers both new and experienced at the University’s different campuses have responded positively to the ABLE approach.
“The proof in these kinds of things is when you (train) and you’ve subjected all your personnel to that training and the feedback that you get,” he said. “The feedback was just overwhelmingly positive, from all the different generations in the police department: the newer folks, the mid-range folks — maybe you’ve been around eight, 10, 12 years — and then the very senior folks as well. “And not only that, it’s traveled well,” Loftus added. “I’ve traveled to our regional campuses where the training has been rolled out, and it’s been very, very well received. So, we’re very happy to be involved in it. We thought it was going to be a big benefit to us and it has.”
Pitt community members may notice officers more often taking their time speaking with complainants — not “rushing the call” — being patient and understanding, “and most of all, being approachable,” Cunningham noted.
Those moving about campus this summer and fall also have a role to play.
“Policing is not an easy profession, and we are training our officers to be more community-oriented police,” Cunningham said. “Therefore, if you see an officer walking in their area, stop and say hello.”
For more information on the ABLE Project, visit the Pitt Police website or the Center for Innovations in Community Safety at Georgetown Law.
Shannon O. Wells is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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