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New Orleans police pioneer new way to stop misconduct, remove ‘blue wall of silence’

‘Ethical Policing Is Courageous’ encourages officers to stop colleague misbehavior, and chief says he will bring it to Baltimore.

New Orleans police officers patrol Mardi Gras in 2014. The New Orleans Police Department launched Ethical Policing Is Courageous, a program to encourage officers to stop or report misbehavior by other officers. (Gerald Herbert/AP)
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The New Orleans Police Department was deep in the hole. Some of its officers ran into legal trouble in the wake of Hurricane Katrina: Some ultimately pleaded guilty to charges in the shooting of six people, and the Justice Department charged others with covering it up. Hundreds simply deserted the force during the 2005 storm. An officer killed an unarmed man during a raid in 2012. The department was placed under a federal consent decree that year, and public trust in the New Orleans police hit rock bottom. Its commanders were looking for a way out.

They needed to change their culture, said former New Orleans superintendent Michael S. Harrison, who will take the top police job in Baltimore next month. “The culture of policing was the ‘blue wall of silence,’ keeping secrets even when people do things wrong,” Harrison said. “That’s an old culture.” When police misconduct becomes public, Harrison said, “we get black eyes. It takes us years to recover from that. Sometimes you never get the citizens' trust back.”

So the New Orleans police devised EPIC — “Ethical Policing Is Courageous.” Crafting a training program for officers that emphasized “active bystandership and peer intervention,” New Orleans created an expectation that officers should step in when a colleague is misbehaving — assaulting a citizen, lying on a report, planting evidence — and stop the bad acts before they happen or else report them. “When they see misconduct potentially about to happen,” Deputy Superintendent Paul Noel said, the goal is “to step in and say, ‘I got this. Back off.’” The idea is that once one bystander steps in, others often follow suit, and the peer pressure keeps the bad act from occurring.

“Active bystandership is contagious,” Noel said. “It’s hard to resist an outspoken co-worker who is intent on doing the right thing.”

New Orleans police are starting to build up anecdotes of EPIC in action. In one instance, officials said, officers had handcuffed a man after fighting, and a sheriff’s deputy from another department walked up and kicked the man in the face. “We don’t roll like that anymore,” one of the officers told the deputy, and then they arrested him. “Previously, everybody would have looked the other way,” Noel said.

At a recent Fourth of July festival, a handcuffed man spit blood and saliva in an officer’s face. “The officer was about to respond,” Noel said. “Then he thought about the EPIC program and walked away.” Trainers in the program use spitting in role-playing as a way of persuading officers not to respond with force that can ultimately harm the officer as well as the spitter.

Police officials say they see signs the program is having a positive impact. Citizen complaints have dropped significantly, from 850 in 2016 to 734 in both 2017 and 2018, they said. Citizen satisfaction with the police has risen, Harrison said. He said some citizens have called to offer an “attaboy” after watching one officer prevent another from misbehaving. “It hasn’t happened often,” Harrison said of the public calls, “but it’s happened.”

And Harrison said he will be taking EPIC with him to Baltimore. “I want to bring every best practice available that’s not there already,” Harrison said in an interview.”

The Baltimore Police Department has struggled with its own internal wall of silence, most notoriously in a federal investigation of the department’s gun task force, which was accused of planting evidence and covering up its own misdeeds. Two detectives were convicted of robbery and racketeering and six officers pleaded guilty to charges including robbery and obstruction of justice. Harrison said in an interview that he was not closely familiar with that case but would address internal corruption when he arrived in Baltimore.

Other cities have noticed the impact of EPIC and are taking steps to adopt the program and take down their own blue walls, including Honolulu; Albuquerque; Baton Rouge; and St. Paul, Minn., Noel said.

The program was created in part by studying the science and impact of active bystandership and also by involving officers from the start, Noel and Harrison said. The department sought out officers who were respected among the rank-and-file, whose support for EPIC would carry weight on the street, and recruited them to teach the program during in-service training. And the department pitched the program to union leaders as a way for officers to avoid disciplinary problems by not getting reported in the first place.

“This is designed to save officers' careers and save their lives,” Noel said, by keeping officers out of the disciplinary system. “What union leader is going to say, ‘I don’t want that’?”

And the program launched by training the department’s top commanders first. “Chief Harrison’s been phenomenal for this,” Noel said. “He sat through eight hours of this. He doesn’t have eight hours to himself on a Sunday. He made it a point to sit in that class, and that set the tone for the program.”

New Orleans officers now wear an EPIC pin on their lapels, declaring their commitment to acting ethically and reporting any misbehavior they see. Body-camera footage of incidents where officers have intervened to stop bad actions is used in training sessions, and officers who successfully intervene are honored, Harrison said.

The success of the program is hard to measure, the New Orleans commanders said, because preventing episodes from happening means no written record is made. “It’s not about IA [Internal Affairs],” Noel said, though there is the incentive of not writing reports and undergoing internal investigations by not misbehaving. “What we can measure is the citizens' complaints that have gone down dramatically, and the citizen satisfaction has steadily risen.”

And now New Orleans is adding a second component to EPIC — intervening with officers who may be depressed or suicidal. “We know that officers are more likely to die by suicide than being shot by a perpetrator,” Noel said. “We train extensively about how to deal with dangerous suspects. But what training do we do to recognize the signs of suicide, depression and mental illness?”

So now EPIC is also being used to encourage officers to spot troubling or self-destructive behavior by their colleagues. “If I see an officer going through a divorce, or using unhealthy means to cope, it’s easy to look the other way,” Noel said. EPIC pushes officers to intervene and suggest fellow officers get help. “We wanted to continue to find ways to save officers' careers and lives.”