Preventing police misconduct

Ervin Staub’s research on “active bystandership” is the foundation of a program helping New Orleans police avert misconduct by fellow police officers

By Amy Novotney, October 2, 2017, Vol 48, No. 9, Print version: page 30

In 2005, police misconduct in New Orleans had reached an all-time high. In the weeks before and after Hurricane Katrina, several high-profile beatings and unjustified shootings by police led to intense federal scrutiny of the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD), including a 2010 U.S. Department of Justice investigation and a 2013 federal consent decree to overhaul policies and promote greater transparency and more civilian oversight of the police force.

In 2017, the NOPD aspires to serve as a model for how to reduce police misconduct. Rather than standing silently by—or joining in on a fellow officer’s brutality—New Orleans police are being trained to step in when they see their colleagues about to overreact in heated situations, tell them to take a break and urge them not to do something they will regret.

Much of this reform can be attributed to the work of retired University of Massachusetts, Amherst, psychologist Ervin Staub, PhD, who has applied his life’s work on what he calls “active bystandership” to develop an officer-training program that emphasizes peer intervention. Known as “Ethical Policing Is Courageous,” or EPIC, the program has become “a key part of the reforms instituted to remake the NOPD,” according to Michael S. Harrison, the NOPD’s superintendent of police.

The city is already seeing some positive effects: Since the NOPD launched EPIC last year, the department has seen fewer complaints against police officers, Harrison says.

The goal of the training is to provide officers with tools and strategies to help them prevent overreactions or potential misconduct by fellow officers by using tactics, such as discreet passwords or codes that encourage a colleague to calm down, stop what they’re doing or let them know that another officer is taking over. In nonemergency situations, EPIC teaches officers how to speak to co-workers privately about potential problems, or to ask another trusted colleague to approach a colleague who is engaging in troubling behavior.

“The program appeals to the deep sense of relationships these officers have with one another by asking them, ‘If you would step in and take a bullet for your partner, what is preventing you from intervening when they’re about to do something that could get them fired?'” says Mary Howell, JD, a civil rights attorney in New Orleans who knew about Staub’s work and introduced it and him to the NOPD.

Bystanding by tragedy

Dr. Ervin Staub holds a photo of his parents Rosza and Joszef Staub (left), and one of Maria Gogan (right) who helped his family in World War II.Staub was motivated to study people’s altruistic and evil behaviors by his childhood experiences. As a Jewish child in Budapest during World War II, Staub and his family survived the Nazi occupation with the help of a Swedish diplomat, who provided them with a safe house to live in, and the Staub family’s Christian housekeeper, who risked her life by helping his family. “Rather than going on her way when we moved into this protected house, she came with us and prepared dough every day and risked her life taking it in a baby carriage to a bakery so she could bring back bread for us and others,” Staub recalls.

Much of Staub’s research has examined what leads witnesses to intervene in everyday emergencies and how passivity by people in some groups and societies is one contributor to an evolution toward genocide or other violence. His research began with expanding research by psychologists Bibb Latané, PhD, and John Darley, PhD, who found that as the number of bystanders increases, the likelihood that any one person will act decreases (Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, Vol. 8, No. 4, 1968). Staub’s research, however, found that this was not the case with young children. In a study with 232 children in kindergarten through sixth grade, researchers evaluated how participants—both alone and in pairs—responded when they heard sounds of a child’s severe distress from an adjoining room (Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, Vol. 14, No. 2, 1970).

“In kindergarten and first grade, the children support each other and are more likely to engage when they suspect a problem,” Staub says. “But as they get older, they show a poker face, and if they don’t see other people reacting, they will decide no action is necessary.”

The study also showed that bystanders have great power. What the researchers said and how they responded to sounds from the other room greatly affected how participants reacted.

Staub has also found that individuals and groups change as a result of their own actions. This research was used to develop EPIC, as well as a training Staub has developed to reduce bullying in schools. In addition, interventions by his team to promote reconciliation in Rwanda led to more acceptance by Hutus and Tutsis of each other and engagement by survivors and former perpetrators.

Another aspect of the police training is helping officers overcome their conviction that loyalty to a fellow officer means accepting or joining in whatever he or she is doing, even if it is using unnecessary force.

“If, in the system, you’re supposed to support your fellow officer all the time and you don’t, you’re often ostracized or outcast by your fellow officers and even superiors, so the cost of you intervening can be pretty substantial,” Staub says. “That’s one of the reasons why it’s so important for the entire system, including superiors, to buy into the training, so that the culture really changes.”

Today, nearly all of the NOPD force has been trained in EPIC, and the response from officers throughout the ranks has been overwhelmingly positive, Harrison says. Now, 28 law-enforcement agencies, including police departments in New York, Seattle, Las Vegas, Memphis and San Francisco, have requested program materials and inquired about the training.

Howell credits these effects to Staub and his commitment to “challenging the rest of us to think about how to be better people and how to not be silent,” and putting his research to good use. “His work is a very good example of a successful transition of something that’s fundamentally scientific and scholarly but has escaped the boundaries of the professional conversation and is making a huge impact on the larger world,” she says.

Further reading

  • Overcoming Evil: Genocide, Violent Conflict and Terrorism
    Staub, E., 2011
  • The Roots of Goodness and Resistance to Evil: Inclusive Caring, Moral Courage, Altruism Born of Suffering, Active Bystandership and Heroism
    Staub, E., 2015

By Amy Novotney, October 2017, Vol 48, No. 9, American Psychology Association, “Preventing police misconduct”,


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