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If you see something, say something: Denver police leaders receive training in national peer intervention program

Trained to look out for the public, Denver's top police officers are now learning how to look out for each other.

DENVER — The Denver Police Department’s chiefs and commanders devoted several hours of Friday to training under the Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement Project. The program, known as ABLE and developed by Georgetown University Law Center and the law firm Sheppard Mullin, trains law enforcement agencies to use peer intervention to prevent harmful actions by officers, reduce mistakes and promote officers’ well-being.

The project builds on a peer intervention program developed by the New Orleans Police Department and Dr. Ervin Staub in 2014.  

Denver is among 30 law enforcement agencies and training academies chosen to participate in ABLE’s national rollout. According to a news release, hundreds of agencies in the U.S. have expressed interest in the program.  

To be certified under ABLE, agencies have to meet a set of standards including strong intervention and anti-retaliation policies. The active bystandership program does not change an agency’s incident reporting policies. 

Supporters of Denver joining the ABLE program include Together Colorado, the Greater Denver Ministerial Alliance, former Independent Monitor Nick Mitchell and Department of Safety Executive Director Murphy Robinson, the news release says.

Friday’s training was the second four-hour session of ABLE education for DPD leadership. The instructors, DPD Comdr. Glenn West and Technician Tyrone Campbell, taught the officers strategies for intervening in a potentially harmful situation as early as possible to prevent it from escalating. The instructors also talked about recognizing signs that their fellow officers may be struggling with mental health or personal problems that are seeping into their work. 

The DPD leaders participated in a few role-playing scenarios during Friday’s training. In one, an officer would talk to another about personal stresses seeping into their fellow officer’s work and coax them to open up. In another scenario, one confronted a more experienced officer about an omission in a use-of-force report. 

“It's not only how to intervene and stop something from occurring as it's already happening, but it's also about stopping something before it happens,” Campbell said in a media interview. “And one of the cornerstones of this program that I really find value in is, in addition to me teaching our officers how to intervene, we're teaching our officers how to accept it.” 

Chief Paul Pazen sat at the front of the room, mainly watching the session quietly and speaking up only occasionally.  

All DPD officers will eventually receive eight hours of ABLE training, and the department has a goal to complete the program in 18 months. 

The last year has brought peer intervention in law enforcement into the spotlight, after George Floyd died in the custody of Minneapolis police officers. Former Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for several minutes with three other officers on the scene.  Chauvin is currently on trial in the death and several fellow officers have been witnesses.

The sweeping policing reform law passed by Colorado’s legislature last June, the Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity Act, created a duty for peace officers to intervene to prevent excessive physical force by other officers. The provision makes failing to intervene a Class 1 misdemeanor, and failure to intervene also prompts revocation of an officer’s POST Board certification when the board receives notice of the officer’s discipline by their agency. 

Floyd’s death highlighted the complex issues involved when an officer has to intervene to prevent harm by a superior or more experienced officer. One of the rookie officers on the scene asked Chauvin a few times whether they should turn Floyd onto his side. 

“I remember being a brand-new cop, and seeing someone with 40 years on the job, I thought they were God,” said Deputy Chief Barb Archer, adding that a culture of intervention needs to foster stepping in whether “you’ve got 20 years or 20 days.” 

Campbell told the officers the ABLE program aims to simplify steps for intervening as much as possible so officers feel comfortable stepping in at any stage of a situation. 

The instructors showed the officers a series of strategies on a graduated scale for voicing their concerns about a potentially harmful decision by a fellow officer, starting with asking questions diplomatically about the decision, moving to a direct challenge and escalating to an assertion that they will take control of the situation if their fellow officer doesn’t make a different decision and the situation’s urgency continues to elevate.  

Campbell turned to Pazen and asked him if that graduated approach would work if a brand-new officer approached him. 

“It needs to work,” Pazen answered. 

When Campbell asked the room if any of them would oppose a newer officer approaching them this way, none of them shook their heads.  

“Once they’ve seen the chiefs and the commanders and everybody else, and they've been given permission to intervene with them, then it's no problem stepping up to a sergeant,” West told The Denver Gazette. “We all have to take this training and take this pledge, from the highest-ranking officer in our agency all the way down to the newest recruits coming out.” 

At the session’s end, West told the DPD’s leaders he knows the culture development required to foster intervention isn’t a light switch that will flip on after eight hours of training. He said it will require them to continually instill it in the districts they oversee. 

“It is truly important that we start this at the top and begin working our way all the way down.” 

 >> This story was done in partnership with the Denver Gazette

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