Editor’s Note: Louis Dekmar, a 44-year law enforcement veteran, is chief of police in LaGrange, Georgia. Collette Flanagan, founder of Mothers Against Police Brutality, is a leading national advocate for peace and justice. Both serve on the Council on Criminal Justice Task Force on Policing. The views expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
First there was the agonizing video, showing Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin grinding his knee into George Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes as three of his colleagues watched and didn’t intervene. Then came the protests, a national wave of outrage coursing through communities large and small.
Now the nation is watching Chauvin’s trial, underway in a Minnesota courtroom – nearly 10 months after Floyd’s death. It’s a chance for the wheels of justice to finally turn. And it’s a moment to ask ourselves:
If another officer were to engage in similar misconduct today, would his colleagues again refuse to step in and stop it?
We serve together on the Council on Criminal Justice Task Force on Policing – a Georgia police chief and a parent who founded Mothers Against Police Brutality after her son was killed by police in 2013. Not surprisingly, we don’t see eye-to-eye on everything. But like our nine task force colleagues, we do agree on what’s needed to ensure officers don’t stand idly by as tragedies like Floyd’s death unfold.
For most people, the reasons underlying an officer’s duty to intervene when a peer engages in wrongdoing seem obvious: protecting lives, serving justice and holding police accountable. And officers agree. A 2017 survey found that 84% of police officers believe they should intercede when witnessing a colleague use excessive force.
But changing a deep-rooted culture to make sure that happens is a formidable task.
Officers are loyal to their peers. They depend on their partners in life-or-death circumstances, making it difficult to oppose them. Some may fear that intervening will provoke retaliation or render them outcasts, scuttling their careers. Others may rationalize that bad actions are justified because they serve the greater good. And, though it’s hard to challenge a superior in any workplace, the rigid hierarchy of police agencies makes calling out the boss even tougher.
What’s more, adopting rules requiring officers to intervene only goes so far. The Minneapolis Police Department, for example, had such a policy on the books the day Chauvin, a department veteran, kneeled fatally on Floyd’s neck. It required officers to “either stop or attempt to stop another sworn employee when force is being inappropriately applied or is no longer required.” And yet, as bystanders implored Chauvin to remove his knee, three young Minneapolis officers failed to step in – although one of them, Thomas Lane, asked Chauvin if Floyd should be rolled on his side, noting that he thought Floyd might be having a medical emergency.
The episode provides a textbook example of why written policy and police academy training are not enough. To prevent misconduct – and reduce the injuries and fatalities it can cause – we must weave the duty to intervene into the very fiber of law enforcement agencies and enforce fidelity to its practice with both incentives and sanctions. Accountability must apply not just to officers who engage in misconduct but also to those who bear witness to it and those who are in a position to intervene and fail to do so.
Last month, the House passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which requires federal law enforcement officers to intervene in cases of excessive force. The law, which faces an uncertain fate in the Senate, also mandates that state and local governments receiving federal funds for policing establish relevant training programs for officers.
That’s a start. But our task force reviewed the research evidence around duty-to-intervene policies and found that, to be effective, they must include certain critical elements. One such element is clear documentation of the type of prohibited officer conduct that requires intervention. Agencies also should integrate the policy into all facets of hiring and training, and reinforce it with instruction that enhances awareness of biases and stereotypes that may discourage an officer from stepping in.
We also recommend that agencies require mandatory reporting of all manner of misbehavior, including the use of racist language, substance abuse, or other signs of officer stress that could lead to trouble down the line. Currently, some police agencies require such reporting but many do not.
More broadly, duty-to-intervene rules must be part of a systemic effort to eliminate the code-of-silence mentality wherever it exists in police culture. Supervisors need to model appropriate behavior and promptly address negative stereotypes, racial biases and power dynamics that allow officers to justify misconduct. Department leaders should praise officers for intervening, an action that research shows can help convince colleagues to do the right thing.
Forging a culture that encourages officers to step up when witnessing misconduct will not be accomplished with a few new rules and stern messages from watch commanders. It requires top-to-bottom changes in recruitment, hiring, supervision, accountability, discipline, and technology – and often, amending state laws and community standards.
But this is not a choice for American policing; it’s a necessity. And we believe the results can be profound.
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If done right, duty-to-intervene and mandatory reporting requirements hold promise to prevent trauma and deaths during encounters between police and community members, strengthen their trust in the officers sworn to protect them and reduce racial disparities in policing. Duty-to-intervene policies also serve the interests of officer safety, reducing the risk of injury or death related to the unwarranted use of force.
Those benefits make the journey to get there well worth the effort. But most importantly, it’s simply the right thing to do.