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Stepping in when fellow officers cross the line

Baltimore Police officers undergo training in the Ethical Policing Is Courageous program, known as EPIC, which is part of a federal consent decree. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

BALTIMORE — About a dozen Baltimore Police officers watch a cellphone video posted to YouTube of people looting a phone store in Seattle. On the screen, two Seattle officers stop a man, take him to the ground and attempt to handcuff him.

A crowd forms, and onlookers start shouting at the officers after one puts his knee on the man’s neck. The second officer pushes his colleague’s knee off in response.

“We’ve all been in that situation,” where tensions are high and an officer’s actions are heavily scrutinized, Baltimore Police Detective Reginald Jones, a 14-year member of the force, tells the class.

In those instances, he says, you might have tunnel vision while focused on the task at hand. But the simple intervention of the Seattle officer’s colleague averted a potentially deadly encounter, Jones says.

That officer’s action is what Baltimore Police are hoping to make automatic, what Jones calls “muscle memory,” through peer-intervention training such as this. The Ethical Policing Is Courageous program, known as EPIC, is a key as the department undergoes restructuring called for under a federal consent decree and a national movement for change.

U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar, who is overseeing the consent decree, sat in on a recent training at the department’s police academy building at the University of Baltimore. He says the training goes “right to the core” of the consent decree and the Justice Department’s initial findings.

“All things mandated by the consent decree are important,” he says, “but EPIC’s got to be at the top of the list.”

It is meant to help officers empower each other to make the best decisions in a “profession filled with gray areas,” he says.

Most of the department’s officers have completed the EPIC training, as policing across the country is being scrutinized amid a national reckoning over race and law enforcement. It started last year with the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police and continues; last week’s shooting death of unarmed Daunte Wright in Minnesota and the release of video of police shooting 13-year-old Adam Toledo in Chicago have only accelerated calls for change.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison brought the program from New Orleans, where he previously served as police superintendent. The police department there earned praise for its implementation of police retooling mandated by a federal consent decree of its own.

While departments had instructed officers to intervene if they witness misconduct, few had training to show officers how to do so. After Floyd’s death, interest rapidly increased among departments in intervention training. The Georgetown University Law Center recently partnered with New Orleans police to offer online courses on the subject.

The lead monitor of New Orleans’s consent decree, Jonathan Aronie, who also chairs the Georgetown/Sheppard Mullin Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement (ABLE) Project, attributed much of New Orleans’ reform progress to the training.

“It is my personal view that EPIC has played a major role in the cultural change that we have seen over the past few years in that department,” Aronie said in a recent webinar. New Orleans has recorded fewer citizen complaints, less use of force, greater citizen satisfaction with police and higher officer satisfaction with their jobs.

Baltimore’s eight-hour course, modeled after New Orleans’s training, explores real-life scenarios and prompts officers to discuss when and how to intervene in a range of problematic situations: An officer encourages their partner to drive the wrong way on a street so they can stop for a meal quickly; an officer finds their partner drunk at a bar with their service weapon in view; a superior asks officers to “clear a corner” by forcing people to leave with no legal justification.

While in the moment, such action might seem extreme, the instructors try to emphasize that it could help save an officer’s career.

At the end of each EPIC training, all officers stand together and recite an oath, and they are encouraged to sign their names on a banner at the police academy to show they support the program.

But several officers say that while they support the peer-intervention approach, it would not always be easy when different ranks are involved.

During the recent training, instructors told the officers that many of the concepts aren’t new in policing, and some are just common sense.

The purpose of the class is “not to insult your intelligence,” Jones, the instructor, tells the group, which included veteran officers, a homicide detective and plainclothes officers. He was teaching the course alongside Officer Austin Garrison, who has four years on the job and is assigned to Eastern District patrol.

Requiring the entire department to participate, and including officers of different rank to lead training, is meant to foster buy-in, department leaders say. But the instructors acknowledge it’s not always easy for officers to stand up to peers or superiors.

“We know that officers have intervened in the past to prevent problems, but we also know that officers don’t intervene every time they should — and the consequences can be profound and tragic,” Harrison said previously. “This training is about helping our officers . . . to become better leaders within their departments and in their communities.”

Baltimore has been operating under its consent decree since 2017. A Justice Department investigation following the arrest and death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered while in police custody found that officers routinely violated residents’ rights and engaged in violent, aggressive behavior. Eight members of an elite gun task force were convicted and sent to federal prison.

A more recent event, before EPIC training was conducted, speaks to the kinds of interactions such sessions aim to improve.

When veteran Sgt. Ethan Newberg tackled and arrested a man who criticized an arrest in Southwest Baltimore in 2019, another officer attempted to intervene, telling Newberg to relax. But Newberg responded by telling the officer “to never question the way he does things and ordered him to leave the scene, and later called him ‘a kumbaya officer,’ ” according to charging documents.

Newberg was subsequently charged with dozens of counts of misconduct, assault and false imprisonment after prosecutors reviewed body camera footage from that incident and many others. He is scheduled to go to trial April 26.

During the recent training, Garrison asks how hard it is for officers to intervene when they see their partner doing something wrong.

One officer responds that it’s difficult to step up and stop their partner “because you don’t want to stop what they are doing” and second-guess their actions.

Garrison asks the class to call out intervention techniques.

“Talking to them,” one officer responds.

Garrison eventually offers another solution: “body cameras.”

Simply pointing to the camera most officers wear can quickly serve as a reminder that many actions are recorded and can have big implications. A last resort, if needed, is physically restraining an officer, Garrison says.

While in the moment, such action might seem extreme, the instructors try to emphasize that it could help save an officer’s career. But several officers say that while they support the peer-intervention approach, it would not always be easy when different ranks are involved.

Officers are taught to follow a chain of command, and encouraging them to speak up against higher-ranking officers or colleagues they depend on is easier in a classroom than when making split-second decisions on the street, they say.

“That’s a challenge that needs to be overcome,” says Lt. Timothy Devine.

Devine, along with Detective Sgt. George Stiemly, underwent the training, which they said was unlike any they have received in their decades of policing. Though the ideas are not new, they say, the class sends the message from the top down, which they hope will encourage a culture change.

“We know that stuff, and it’s being formalized and thoughtful,” says Devine of the training.

But the training will also help encourage “buy-in” across the department, from the patrol officer on the street to detectives and high-ranking officers, says Stiemly.

“It’s a forced buy-in, but it’s a first step of a change to the culture,” Devine says. “The acceptance is there. It’s clear it will be a part of the yearly in-service [training]. It’s not just assuming that we know it.”

“It’s definitely a step in the right direction,” Stiemly says.

— Baltimore Sun