Psychologist’s training program may impact police reform

By Catherine Robertson Souter
July 10th, 2021
Ervin Staub Ph.D, professor emeritus of psychology at University of Massachusetts Amherst
Ervin Staub Ph.D, professor emeritus of psychology at University of Massachusetts Amherst

Just over a year ago, the world paused in stunned horror when a video surfaced of the murder of George Floyd, suffocated while pinned under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer who has since been found guilty of murder. The country erupted in anti-police brutality protests and calls went out for systemic change within policing around the country.

For police departments, it has been a time of reckoning. No one wants to think that they are the “bad guys,” especially not those who have dedicated their lives to stepping up to defend the weak and rout out crime.

But the facts remain, close to 1,000 people are killed by police in the US each year and 24 percent of those are Black people, despite making up only 13 percent of the population, according to Amnesty International.

Everyone is talking about police reform, but what exactly does that look like? Ervin Staub Ph.D, professor emeritus of psychology at University of Massachusetts Amherst, believes his team has the answer.

In the Floyd case, there were three other officers who could have saved him, who could have stopped the officer kneeling on his neck. One tried, with an attempt to question Floyd’s position on the ground but quickly backed off when told it was fine.

Staub, who spent his career looking at violence between groups and reconciliation and prevention, created a police training program aimed at those three officers and how the “active bystander” can be trained to step up and defuse situations.

His program, ABLE, or Active Bystander for Law Enforcement, has been introduced into more than 110 police departments across the country so far and, he hopes, will continue to spread as word gets around.

New England Psychologist’s Catherine Robertson Souter spoke with Staub about his work on the science of intervention and how ABLE training could change the culture of policing in the U.S.

Staub is the former president of the International Society of Political Psychology and of the APA Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict, and Violence.

Q: You spent your career studying altruism, passive and involved bystanders, aggression in children, the roots of violence between groups, and reconciliation after violence. How is the work you are now doing with the police a part of the whole?

For many years, I did research on what leads people to help others what leads them to be, what I call, active bystanders, which means to respond to peoples’ needs and engage in a helpful way.

There are two powerful kinds of influences that apply to people helping that are also relevant to police. I found the most important influence is a feeling of responsibility for others’ welfare.

The other powerful influence is the circumstances, the nature of the situation: are they alone or with other people and are these other people passive or do they exert influence?

In one of the studies I did, which we talk about in every police training to show the power of bystanders, we had two people [one a test subject and the other a disguised researcher] sitting working on the same task. There is a crash and sounds of distress from another room. Depending on what the person who works with me says, helping, going into the other room to check what is happening, ranges from about 25 percent of people to 100 percent.

When a person says “That sounds bad, maybe we should do something. I will go and find a person in charge and you go into the other room and see what happened,” every single person goes into the other room to see what happened.

Later, I began research on what leads groups of people to engage in violence against others. One thing that is highly relevant is that when members of a group begin to engage in harmful behavior and there are no constraining influences, they change as a result of their own actions. They learn by doing.

When police officers engage in unnecessary, harmful behavior and nobody stops them, not their fellow officers, not their superiors, not the justice system, they also learn by doing and they are likely to become increasingly violent.

You have talked about a study where, as children got older, they were less likely to step up and help because they were socialized not to go against rules. How much does that apply to police not wanting to correct a superior or step outside their role? The officer who questioned the situation with George Floyd backed down when he was told it was fine.

It is more powerful in the police. The police learn, first of all, that you support your fellow officer no matter what. It is part of police culture. They learn to respect hierarchy. And that young officer who was only on the job for four days did challenge his superior officer but only minimally. That is where our training helps. We train police officers in skills and intervention. You start out mildly but if that doesn’t work, you escalate.

But, in order for that to happen, police culture has to change. Because if the police culture doesn’t change, and you intervene, fellow officers are likely to turn against you and superiors may punish you for the intervention.

How can you change that mindset?

We talk about police culture and how good collaboration means you do not let a fellow officer do things that are harmful not only to citizens but also to the officer himself or herself.

The way you approach this is by showing them how the bystander training helps protect them as well, from losing a job or being prosecuted or the guilt that comes with making a bad decision. How do you put that into training?

We train officers to engage with their fellow officers when they seem to be in emotional distress. That makes it less likely that the officer engages in unnecessary harm. We train them to try to stop mistakes by fellow officers, like not searching a suspect appropriately so the person may be able to shoot someone later.

We also train people to accept intervention. We ask them to tell their fellow officers what would be most acceptable form of intervention for them.

I created the first training after the Rodney King incident. After a chase, police officers pulled King out of his car and beat him while he was lying on the ground. There was something like 17 officers standing around observing. Each one of those officers might think, `Why should I intervene when there are all these others around?’ They refer to that as diffusion of responsibility.

Another important thing is what we call pluralistic ignorance: in a social situation, people tend to put on a poker face. You look around and no one looks concerned so you decide that there is no reason for concern and I am not going to do anything.

How does the training address these points?

Anyone who indicates there is a problem can break through this, if somebody says, “That looks really problematic to me.” You can turn to others as allies and invite them to join with you to take some action.

Are police officers open to this training?

The departments that we work with tend to be open. We have 11 or 12 requirements before we accept a department into the training, including that two local organizations have to write a letter on their behalf. By the time they go through this, they develop a commitment.

They select officers to send and we train these officers who then go back and train the whole department. Sometimes, the number of officers we train is fairly substantial: one of the departments we are working with now is the NYPD and there are 45- 46,000 police officers there.

You offer this free of charge to police departments. How is it funded?

Some of the people who train the trainers do it pro bono. The people who are doing this, their heart is in it. They think this is valuable and they are committed to it.

We have received some money from Verizon and various other large companies that make contributions.

You have worked in conflict areas around the world throughout your career. How does this work compare with the other things you have done?

Not sure it is the highlight but I would say this has perhaps the chance of having the greatest impact. I worked in Rwanda for 10 years, going there three times a year for three weeks. We also had programs in Burundi and the Congo. I did a lot of different kinds of work.

But, the way this is going now, it may, over time, transform policing in the United States.

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