Allentown Police in line to undergo active bystander training. We found out what it’s all about

It’s all ‘about people stepping up and stepping in if they see something that shouldn’t be happening,’ an official said

By: - January 17, 2022 6:30 am

Protests erupted around the country in response to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota while in police custody. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

This year, the Allentown Police Department will become among the first in the nation to undergo training with the Active Bystander for Law Enforcement (ABLE) project.

The program, fueled by incidents such as the high-profile death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in May 2020, teaches officers how to intervene when their fellow officers put others in danger of death or injury through excessive use of force or failure to follow correct procedures.

The ABLE program was launched last year by Georgetown Law School’s Center for Innovations in Community Safety in partnership with the law firm Sheppard Mullin.

It originated from the Ethical Policing is Courageous program that was founded by the New Orleans Police Department. But demand for training grew too great for the city force to accommodate, so Georgetown stepped in.

Allentown and Philadelphia were among the first departments accepted into initial training. 

Since then, other Pennsylvania departments have followed suit. They include the Castle Shannon Police Department in Allegheny County, the Southern Chester County Regional Police Department, West Reading Police Department and campus police departments at University of Pennsylvania, University of Pittsburgh, Wilkes University and Bloomsburg University.

The Capital-Star talked to Lisa A. Kurtz, ABLE project manager, about the ABLE project and how the program aims to prevent misconduct, reduce officer mistakes and promote health and wellness.

Q: What is active bystandership?

A: Active bystandership is really about people stepping up and stepping in if they see something that shouldn’t be happening. Whereas a passive bystander might just stand there and not do anything proactively, an active bystander is someone who is going to safely take action to try and prevent the action or stop the harm.

Q: Active bystandership is based on the bystander effect. Can you explain what that is?

A: It is the idea that the more people there are witnessing a situation, the less likely it is that someone is going to step up.

And that’s for a number of reasons — either because everyone is looking at everyone else thinking, “Oh, well, no one seems to think that anything’s wrong. So, maybe I’m misinterpreting the situation.”

Or it’s because folks may be thinking, “Oh, well, you know, surely someone else is in a better position to intervene.”

What has been shown more recently is that the bystander effect can be attenuated based on the relationships of the people in that group.

So, if you have two people who know each other well, they might be more likely to act than if you have two people who are strangers to each other. And the reason for that is because the people who know each other better are more likely to turn to each other and talk.

Q: Police have a duty to intervene. So why don’t they always step in?

A: Until very recently there hasn’t been any training available to departments. And police officers are human and are subjected to the same behavioral processes, the same psychological inhibitors that play on everyone else.

While police are trained to stop dangerous situations, it’s a lot harder. Once you introduce the interpersonal dynamics, the issues of rank, the organizational structure and the organizational culture [come into play].

Meet Charles Roca, Allentown’s first Latino police chief

And so that’s why we take a broader approach to trying to create culture change in these agencies – so that active bystandership becomes something that people are regularly expected to do. And that when they do it, they are supported — there’s no retaliation, there are no negative repercussions.

Q: How does the training work?

It’s a full day of training, and a yearly requirement two-hour refresher course. Everyone in the department needs to have this — from the new recruits all the way up to the chief of police. The training starts by getting into why is this important? What are the potential negative outcomes that we can prevent?

We spend a lot of time going over the theory, so that officers really have that foundational knowledge. And then we move into building the skillset[s] that relies on that knowledge. Teaching officers concrete tactics — successful ways that they can intervene — will make it more likely that that intervention will be accepted.

The training is really about empowering officers and then giving them the skills that they need to intervene with each other when necessary and to accept those interventions.

And then there’s a broader culture change piece. It’s sort of a comprehensive framework that includes having a robust communications plan, having the full and vocal support of the chief, having some involvement from local community groups. It really aims to be something that is implemented agency wide and in perpetuity.

Q: Can you give a scenario used to train officers to intervene?

A: We have had ­­­­a number of tragic incidents that have occurred when people have been improperly handcuffed. So, what do you do if you are a rookie and a sergeant has put someone in handcuffs the wrong way?

We talk about the different ways that you could approach that sergeant. “You could say, “Hey, I’m a brand-new rookie. I really want to practice my handcuffing. Would it be OK if you took off your handcuffs and I put mine on the suspect? Or maybe you’re saying, “Hey, you know, that’s not the way that we were taught to handcuff from the academy. Can you tell me more about why you handcuff that way?”

Q: What do you do if the sergeant won’t listen?

A: How do you escalate that intervention?  {You do that by saying}, “Hey, actually, I’m really, really concerned about your safety … So I just want to quickly fix these handcuffs so that everyone gets to go home safely at the end of the day. So, it’s really about that approach that you’re taking about how you are communicating effectively with other people.

Q: Why is this training so important?

A: As you know, George Floyd’s death didn’t just impact Minneapolis. It impacted the entire country. At the local level, when there are incidents where people feel that the police have treated someone unfairly, the police have used unnecessary force, that’s something that really stays with the community. 

When folks see one officer doing something wrong, they are more likely to think that all officers are doing things.

It’s something that has long-term effects. If families had a loved one killed by the police, that’s something that’s probably going to carry on for several generations.

So, you can see how quickly one incident can have this broad ripple effect, [and] really influence the relationship between the police and the communities that they serve.

Agencies have started to recognize that they need to demonstrate to their communities that  they really are committed to repairing that relationship, to building that relationship and to providing the highest level of service possible to all members of the community.

Q: How will you measure success?

A: That’s something that our  team has talked a lot about. Currently, the primary mechanism is we have these pre- and post-training surveys that are given to every officer immediately before they take the training, immediately after then three months later. Those surveys are designed to gather the officer’s perceptions of their agency, of active bystandership in their agency, the culture of their agency, as well as their self-reported attitudes and their behaviors when it comes to both giving and receiving interventions.

We also are working with select agencies that are interested in being data partners with us to develop some more robust research studies. So those are in development for us to really look at the long-term impact of able on a department’s culture. 

Correspondent Katherine Reinhard covers Allentown and the Lehigh Valley for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Follow her on Twitter @KMReinhard. 

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Katherine Reinhard
Katherine Reinhard

Katherine Reinhard, a veteran journalist, is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Lehigh Valley Correspondent and a co-editor of Armchair Lehigh Valley, a Substack newsletter focused on politics in the Allentown/Bethlehem/Easton region.