Officers Thao, Lane and Kueng provide a perfect example of what psychologists call a “side effect.” They have been paralyzed by the powerful social forces that operate too often to prevent even decent people from taking action to stop abuses.
Even though Officer Thao was a nine-year veteran in the police department with several previous malpractice complaints, Lane, and Kueng were virgin newbies, each less than a week out of field training, and were perceived by their peers as caring, idealistic young officers. Kueng, one of only 80 black officers In a division of 900, he had joined the Minneapolis police force in the hope that an increasingly diverse force would reduce police racism and aggression against people of color. Lane, who taught Somali children in his spare timewas known for his calmness and his ability to defuse tense situations.
When it became clear that Floyd was having trouble breathing, why didn’t any of the men intervene? Why didn’t a half-dozen New York cops, who watched cop Daniel Pantaleo place Eric Garner in a stranglehold in 2014, stepped in to aid Garner? Why did none of the six Baltimore officers involved in the 2015 arrest of Freddie Gray warn of the need to secure Grey’s seat belt after he was loaded into a police car? In far too many police abuse cases, other officers could have intervened to prevent harm but remained passive.
The side effect that social psychologists have puzzled over for decades is hardly limited to police officers. Think of the millions of ordinary Germans who watched with dismay at the Nazis’ abuse but did not speak out when their Jewish neighbors were rounded up. Or Kitty Genovese Neighbors who neither intervened nor called 911 when she was stabbed to death on a Queens street in 1964. On a mundane level, think of all the people who look the other way and pretend they don’t notice when a school or workplace bully mocks an unfortunate victim.
Numerous studies have documented the side effect, and we now have a fairly clear understanding of the factors that can cause ordinary people to do nothing, even when morality seems to warrant intervention. People are less likely to intervene when, for example, they are faced with ambiguous situations than with clear situations. They are less likely to intervene when surrounded by their peers who are also doing nothing, or when intervention would require the challenge of those they perceive to be authoritarian. They are also less likely to intervene if they believe someone else will or should take action or help those they consider culturally different from themselves.
All of these factors seem to have played a role in the moments that led to Floyd’s death. Chauvin was the most experienced officer on the scene, and the less experienced officers relied on his judgment; Chauvin insisted on keeping Floyd down, stating that he was taking steps to keep Floyd alive, which created some degree of confusion for the other officers as to whether Chauvin’s actions were inappropriate. Each of the three officers could see that none of his colleagues intervened to stop Chauvin, thus spreading responsibility for poor results. After all, differences in class, race, and culture may have enabled officers to see Floyd as “another” rather than someone they felt obliged to help.
Humans are social animals. We are biologically hardwired to form groups. But there is a downside to our social nature: we find it easy to ignore the suffering of those outside of our own groups, especially when our co-workers or leaders seem to be doing the same. These phenomena can be particularly pronounced in related groups such as the military, sports teams, brotherhoods and, of course, police forces.
As a former reserve cop in Washington, DC, I’ve seen this firsthand. From their earliest moments at the academy, police recruits have drummed loyalty and obedience into themselves and are acculturated to see their identities as cops as the trump card of other identities. (“I don’t care what color you are,” one of our police academy instructors yelled at new recruits. “From now on, you’ll all bleed blue!”) For policemen, supporting fellow officers is like a sacrament, and blatant infidelity the group is a quick route to exclusion.
But there is nothing inevitable about the police’s passivity in the face of ill-treatment by other officers. On the contrary, strong evidence from psychological and social science research suggests that effective intervention is a skill like any other: it can be taught and learned. It’s just not enough for civil servants say However, police officers must intervene if they discover inappropriate or dangerous behavior. Creating a culture in which individuals step in to stop wrongdoing and failure requires determined, sustained efforts, both individually and organizationally. It also takes practice.
One of the first steps is to redefine loyalty. Campaigns to reduce drunk driving offer a model. At first they had little success; Few people wanted to act like killjoys by stealing car keys from a friend who was “just having fun”. Only if the message is on “Friends don’t let friends drive drunkHas the culture changed? Instead of defining loyalty as “letting your friends do what they want”, loyalty has been redefined as “helping your friends avoid potentially fatal mistakes”. And groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving gave simple, practical advice: pick a specific driver before going out; Accept that a drunk person may not appreciate your taking away the car keys, but do it anyway.
The number of drunk people has decreased dramatically in the decades since the beginning of the “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk” campaign. Similar audience intervention programs have been successful in settings as diverse as this Aircraft cockpit and the operating room – Places where hierarchy, obedience, conformity, and group loyalty are valued, but where, like policing, the cost of error and misconduct can be catastrophic.
Police officers can also learn how to avoid being passive bystanders in the face of mistakes, misconduct and abuse. Programs like that Ethical Policing Is Brave (EPIC) Program in New Orleans or the Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement (ABLE) project in Georgetown, where I jointly lead the program for innovative police work, draw directly on the findings of psychologists such as Erwin Staubwho conducted some of the most groundbreaking research on viewer intervention. Georgetown’s ABLE project, launched in the months following Floyd’s murder, has already actively trained more than 100 police departments across the United States to help officers acquire the specific skills needed to intervene effectively. So far, the evidence suggests that such programs can make a real difference. For example, although it is difficult to pinpoint a direct cause, complaints from citizens about the police have decreased in New Orleans After all, all officers received active on-site training through EPIC, as did incidents of unnecessary violence.
Police organizations committed to creating a culture of active watching tell officials that loyalty does not mean remaining inactive when coworkers are abusive. Loyalty means preventing coworkers from taking actions that could hurt them or others. (Friends do not let friends act in a way that leads to firing or prosecution.) Active watching is not just about preventing gross abuse. Police officers need the skills to also intervene when a colleague accidentally overlooks a safety issue or when a colleague shows signs of severe untreated PTSD. High quality training for active viewers is not just a question of lectures and PowerPoint slides. It requires the extensive use of case studies and role play exercises. An important lesson officers learn in this type of training is that initial attempts at intervention are often pushed aside or disgruntled, and effective intervention requires persistence – including ultimately a willingness to physically push a colleague aside and take over when there is none gives another way to stop dangerous or abusive behavior.
Would the training of spectators have made a difference the day George Floyd died? Look at Lane, the Minneapolis rookie officer who is now at the door with Thao and Kueng Aiding and abetting charges Second degree murder and manslaughter. (The three are awaiting trial in August, despite their lawyers recently demanded that their charges be dismissed.) Video recordings of Floyd’s death suggests Lane was restless about Chauvin’s actions. At some point he suggested rolling Floyd onto his side. When Chauvin refused, Lane offered a vague expression of concern about Floyd’s health, but when Chauvin snapped: “[That’s] Why did we have the ambulance come? Lane stepped back. A little later, Lane noticed that Floyd seemed to be “passed out” and asked again if Floyd should be run over – but again he didn’t insist when Chauvin ignored him.
While Lane and his colleagues were required by law to intervene if necessary to prevent abuse, the Minneapolis Police Department did not offer specific training. If they had followed an active audience training program, they might have felt more empowered to express themselves. And perhaps Lane would have understood that potential interveners are almost always turned down at first, but that increasing persistence – and ultimately action – can prevent abuse. Maybe one of the officers would have just pulled Chauvin off Floyd and said, “I can’t let you do this. He’ll get hurt or worse and you’ll get fired or worse. Let me do it.”
And maybe George Floyd would still be alive today.