Next month, the Dallas Police Department will become one of the first Texas cities to go through the Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement (ABLE) program, which aims to improve police culture by teaching officers how to prevent harm and misconduct by their coworkers.
The program is a nationally coordinated initiative from the Georgetown Innovative Policing Program that's also intended to promote officer health and wellness. The city entered into an agreement between the University of North Texas at Dallas and DPD to implement the program.
The program was developed in part by Ervin Staub, a psychology professor who created active bystander training for the Los Angeles Police Department after some of its officers were captured on camera brutally beating Black motorist Rodney King in 1991. Studying how violent situations evolve, Staub found that most people are "passive bystanders," those who let things happen and assume no responsibility for others' actions. A good example of this would be the officers who stood by as Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on George Floyd's neck for eight minutes until he died early this year.
The program will teach DPD officers to be "active bystanders" and include training scenarios in which police have to physically stop the actions of another officer.
BJ Wagner, executive director of the Caruth Police Institute, said the program is highly screened and highly competitive, so Dallas should be proud to be a part of it.
Following protests this summer in Dallas after the death of George Floyd, former police Chief U. Reneé Hall implemented changes to DPD’s general orders requiring sworn and non-sworn officers to stop or attempt to stop their fellow officers from using excessive force.
These changes were modeled after guidelines recommended by the International Association of Chiefs of Police and are required for any department that wishes to be part of the Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement program. DPD received its formal acceptance into the program at the end of last year. At the beginning of February, officers will be trained to teach the program to the rest of the department.
Wagner said setting policies is not enough to change a police department.
"There’s a behavioral gap between the awareness of the policy and the intensity of the moment officers are making decisons and reacting," Wagner said. "ABLE addresses that behavior gap. The policy is the foundation. The behavioral gap that ABLE addresses is basically the operationalizing of that policy."
Promoting officer care and wellness is a big part of the equation, Wagner said. The more stress an officer is under, whether it's regarding their physical or mental health, the more mistakes they will make.
Mike Mata, president of the Dallas Police Association, has taught de-escalation courses at DPD before and said he volunteered to be one of the instructors for the Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement program.
“I’m always in favor of educating officers more to make them better officers, but I do think that we have officers with the highest level of integrity,” Mata said. “I’m the first one to admit there are bad cops and we need to do everything we can to get them out of this organization. If this class helps accomplish that, I’m all for it.”
While a big focus of this program will be on how officers can better police themselves, Mata said people would be surprised at how often cops report each other for misconduct already.
“Just last year we had 243 cases where officers started a complaint on a fellow officer or reported misconduct of a fellow officer,” he said. “The idea that officers just don’t do it at all, or that there’s some blue wall of silence, I think is a great mischaracterization of what’s actually the truth.”
Sometimes, though, chain of command can make it harder for a junior officer to tell their seniors they're doing something wrong, Mata said.
Given that it’s been a few years since DPD has conducted de-escalation training and there’s been a lot of turnover in that time, Mata said he's glad DPD is taking part in the program.
The city allocated $300,000 to fund the implementation through 2024.
City Council members this week said that implementing the program at DPD is a step in the right direction, although Lee Kleinman was skeptical about cops teaching other cops how to be better.
“I’m really hoping in the long term we can get to really having educational specialists teaching our recruits and our officers as opposed to cops teaching cops because that’s how the culture was put in place in the first place,” he said.
Policing and criminology are ever-changing fields of study, said Alex del Carmen, a criminology professor at Tarleton State University in Fort Worth. When LAPD officers beat King, it put a light on the need for change in police culture, making it a point of interest for many Americans, and it’s a discussion that has changed a lot over time.
In the past, there’s been the belief that if you change the police chief, you can change the culture. But this is only a bandage. Who is chief is important, but more is required to change a culture, Del Carmen said.
“It takes a change of the command staff, oftentimes their policies [and] the relationship they have with city management,” he said.
During former President Barack Obama’s administration, the Department of Justice investigated police departments in Baltimore, Cleveland, New Orleans, Chicago and Ferguson, Missouri, among others after seeing patterns of abuse and misconduct, according to VOX. These investigations resulted in consent decrees, court-ordered agreements with the DOJ designed to correct longstanding unconstitutional practices within law enforcement agencies.
The Obama administration DOJ entered into 15 of these agreements with police departments, according to ProPublica. George Bush’s DOJ only entered into three of these agreements and President Donald Trump’s administration has not entered into any.
Del Carmen has taken part in these agreements. They work when the right people are involved, he said, but they are the last resort. There are some officers who just refuse to acknowledge there is a problem. "They have literally looked the other way," Del Carmen says. "They have engaged in what is called deliberate indifference. When they close themselves in an environment that is incredibly insular from everyone else, they create a culture that doesn’t feel they are accountable to anyone or anything"
Since Floyd died, he said, some police departments are realizing for the first time there is a problem and are wondering how to fix it. More and more police departments are trying to solve these problems internally before the feds get involved and lawsuits are filed.
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