Transforming the culture of policing
February 6, 2023 By Neil Dubord and Jassie Ram (Padda)
Creating a culture of care through active bystandership training
Over the past two years, police services throughout Canada have witnessed increased calls from their communities for multi-faceted changes to policing, collectively grouped into terms such as police modernization and police reform. One such change focuses on the prevention of officer misconduct.
The prevention of officer misconduct is not only paramount in instilling public confidence and trust in policing but is also a key element in officer wellness. Research has repeatedly demonstrated that internal professional standard investigations are the most stressful part of police officers’ jobs. In response to the feedback from our communities, the core focus for police leadership should be on taking a proactive approach to prevent officer misconduct whilst promoting officer wellness.
An evidence-based approach for the prevention of officer misconduct is the utilization of Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement (ABLE) training. ABLE training is a tool that focuses on creating a transformational cultural shift supporting peer intervention. Created by the Georgetown Law Center for Innovations in Community Safety, in partnership with the global law firm Sheppard Mullin, ABLE training has 10 standards which those wishing to utilize the training must adhere to. An organization wishing to participate in the ABLE training must partake in an extensive application process.
In late 2021, the Delta Police Department (DPD) in British Columbia became the first police organization in the province to deliver ABLE training to its entire membership.
After the successful implementation and evaluation of the ABLE training program at the DPD, it was brought to the attention of the Justice Institute of B.C. (JIBC)1 and it is now part of the mandatory curriculum for all recruits attending the JIBC.
Put simply, ABLE training empowers officers to strategically and successfully intervene, regardless of their rank, to prevent officer misconduct. By preventing harm and avoiding mistakes, which are the intended outcomes of the active bystandership training, we support the mental and physical well-being of our officers.
Undoubtedly, our officers frequently make high-stress and critical decisions and are active bystanders daily throughout their duties because of the very nature of police work. When our officers hear gunshots, they are the ones who run towards the sound of those gunshots. When our officers witness a car zip past them at high speeds in a school zone, they make every attempt to stop that car and take necessary action. Our officers are some of the most dedicated, committed and selfless persons, and we, as leaders, get the front row seat to witness their heroic actions daily.
However, a gap exists when it comes to intervening in the harmful actions of other officers, especially those who are senior in experience or rank, often resulting in officers becoming passive bystanders. To address this gap, we must deliver meaningful training on how to perform the duty of “active bystandership” effectively, safely and consistently. And this is where active bystandership training comes into play.
Following the research
ABLE training is based on the extensive research of Dr. Staub2. He notes that intervening in another person’s conduct is actually much harder than it looks; there can be various inhibitors to active bystandership, such as diffusion of responsibility, pluralistic ignorance, potential costs and devaluation of those who need help.
In the policing field, our focus is on implementing evidence-based initiatives. Quantifying the success of the ABLE training is challenging because, as we all know, when the training works as it’s designed to, nothing happens. When nothing happens, it will not go viral on social media or become the feature story of every news channel.
However, there is strong evidence vouching for ABLE training’s effectiveness. ABLE training incorporates evidence from Dr. Staub2 and various other researchers’ bystandership experiments in lab and field settings, highlighting the power bystanders have over the action of others. This research has shown that active bystandership can be learned, practiced and absorbed, just as any other skills we teach our officers, such as firearms and use-of-force training. Hospitals, aviation and post-secondary institutions have already employed active bystandership training.
A gap exists when it comes to intervening in the harmful actions of other officers.
Additionally, a post-training survey conducted with the DPD membership demonstrated positive results, noting improvement in officer perceptions, attitudes and likelihood of peer intervention compared to the pre-training survey. It is noted that annual reinforcement training will be critical to maintaining the program’s success, just as we focus on re-certification training for firearms and other policing skills. The inspector in charge of the training section at the DPD noted the following about ABLE training:
“I believe it will be one of the most impactful programs that this department will have ever delivered. A senior officer about to retire told me ABLE training was one of the most profound training sessions he had participated in and wished he had the training earlier in his career.”
As I mentioned, there is a comprehensive application process in which the DPD participated, committing to 10 ABLE standards to be accepted into the program, which are summarized below. Upon acceptance into the program, we sent our officers to receive training from Georgetown Law and become certified ABLE trainers for the DPD.
The ABLE standards
Community support: DPD submitted four letters of support, two from community-based organizations, one from myself as the leader of the organization, and one from the leader of the jurisdiction in which the agency is based (e.g. the Mayor).
Meaningful training: all sworn officers and recruits must receive at least eight hours of initial and at least two hours of annual refresher training, with a maximum class size of 25.
Dedicated coordination: ABLE training implementation must be spearheaded by a designated program coordinator at the organization. This person will roll out, promote and reinforce the program, providing guidance and assistance to the department as necessary. Additionally, officers from the department must be sent to the ABLE Train-the-Trainer (TTT) events with uninterrupted time to attend and train the event and complete homework assignments. The trainers then facilitate the training to the rest of the department.
Program awareness: the agency must create internal and external awareness of the program, including the benefits and principles of peer intervention.
Accountability: the organization must have a robust anti-retaliation policy to ensure that interveners are not punished, targeted or ostracized in any way, and the organization will investigate any alleged instances of retaliation and hold those accountable if found to be true.
Officer wellness: the organization must have a meaningful officer wellness program providing officers access to professional counsellors for guidance and support.
Reporting: ABLE training isn’t intended to alter an agency’s reporting policies, and thus, an agency must continue reporting as standard practice.
Measuring officer perceptions: the organization must conduct a pre-implementation and post-implementation perception survey amongst those who receive the training.
Follow-through: ABLE training must be implemented department-wide with the full support of management and leadership.
Pay it forward: organizations with ABLE-certified instructors are to make reasonable efforts to make the training and instructors available to surrounding law enforcement agencies that have been accepted into the program.
Over the past few years, police officer health and wellness initiatives have rightfully taken centre stage. Significant efforts have been made to address the stigma around officer mental health and ensure that we deliver the proper services and resources for our teams’ mental and physical well-being. We must also recognize that officer misconduct is interconnected with our team’s wellness; thus, investing in initiatives such as ABLE training to prevent officer misconduct is critical.
- The JIBC is the only accredited organization providing training to police recruits for all municipal departments in B.C.
- Staub, Ervin. (2018). Preventing Violence and Promoting Active Bystandership and Peace: My Life in Research and Applications. Peace and Conflict: The Journal of Peace Psychology, 24(1), 95–111. https://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pac0000301
Neil Dubord is the Chief Constable of the Delta Police Department.
Jassie Ram (Padda) is the Corporate Services Manager, working with the Office of the Chief Constable at the Delta Police Department.
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