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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services
In 1962, Dick Fosbury, a young high-schooler from Medford, Oregon, tried his hand at the high jump. He was not very good. Try as he might, he could not master the awkward Western Roll technique used by most jumpers at that time. So he tried something new. He approached the bar from a different angle, jumped off his opposite foot, and, to his coach’s surprise, flopped over the bar head-first and face-up. It looked silly at the time, but he cleared the bar and started winning meets.
As Fosbury entered college at Oregon State, his track and field coach pressed him to go back to jumping “the right way” – in other words, using the Western Roll. Fosbury couldn’t do it and finally his coach relented, letting him experiment with his new technique. Fosbury proceeded to shatter the school’s high jump record as a sophomore, becoming an NCAA champion in 1968. He then went on to make the U.S. Olympic team, and, later that year, took home a gold medal in Mexico City – all with his then-quite-awkward-looking jumping style.
By 1972, 28 of 48 Olympians had adopted Fosbury’s novel style. By 1980, all but two Olympic medalists used it. And today, of course, every credible athlete in the world employs the “Fosbury Flop,” the very technique introduced by Dick Fosbury back in 1968.
Odd as it may sound, I was reminded of Dick Fosbury at a policing conference hosted by the New Orleans Police Department last month. The conference focused on NOPD’s EPIC (Ethical Policing Is Courageous) program, which teaches better peer intervention skills to police officers as a means of reducing mistakes and misconduct by other officers. Created by NOPD’s rank and file with the support of national experts, EPIC teaches officers effective strategies and tactics for intervening in a colleague’s actions before something goes wrong. The program gained immediate traction within the department, was embraced and promoted by department and city leaders, and has been championed by the New Orleans community as a win-win solution to many of the policing problems that led the NOPD into a federal consent decree in 2012.
The EPIC program also attracted the positive attention of the New York Times, the U.S. Department of Justice, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Fraternal Order of Police, the FBI, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and the Police Executive Research Forum.
All this positive attention prompted NOPD to host a national conference focusing on police peer intervention last month at Loyola New Orleans College of Law. Co-sponsored by the Fraternal Order of Police and the Southern Poverty Law Center (an unlikely collaboration ), the program was attended by police leaders from across the United States, including Honolulu, Seattle, New York, Baltimore, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The conference featured a variety of speakers, including noted author Dr. Ervin Staub, a world-renowned psychologist who has studied active and passive “bystandership” for decades, FBI National Academy instructor Ed Yeung, former U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite, civil rights legends Ted Quant and Mary Howell, and NOPD police leadership. The national conference also featured robust discussions between and among the attendees.
I had the honor of speaking at the Loyola conference, and one question by one attendee struck me as particularly interesting. A veteran officer from a mid-sized police agency, who I suspect had experienced departmental resistance to police reform programs in the past, asked how NOPD deals with officers who don’t “buy in” to the peer intervention concept. The more I thought about the question, the more it intrigued me.
While many departments undergoing reform efforts struggle mightily with officer buy-in – and NOPD has not been immune from that struggle – EPIC is not actually a reform program. While EPIC may have emerged out of a reform program (i.e., its 492 paragraph consent decree), EPIC is an education program. EPIC simply teaches officers a better way to do something many of them have been doing for years.
NOPD’s EPIC program:
Through a thoughtful education program that provides interactive recruit and in-service training, including scenario-based role- play, NOPD’s EPIC program gives officers more effective tools for preventing mistakes and misconduct before they occur.
For officers who have always had the courage to take on the role of active bystander vis-à-vis other officers, EPIC provides a more effective way to do it. For officers who were previously inhibited from playing that role, EPIC provides the confidence and courage that comes with knowing how to use a skill more proficiently. And, for all officers, EPIC fosters an environment where intervention is not only allowed, but is encouraged, expected, and protected.
Against this background, talking about whether officers will “buy in” to EPIC is a little like asking, back in 1968, whether high jumpers would “buy in” to Dick Fosbury’s high jump technique. The question of “buy in” is not particularly important if the new approach is objectively more effective than the one that preceded it. Dick Fosbury came up with a better way to jump over a bar. Whether they “bought in” or not, athletes who adopted Fosbury’s technique jumped higher than those who did not. Athletes who clung to their old technique found themselves watching from the sidelines as their peers climbed the stairs to collect their gold medals.
Just as athletes who wanted to jump higher ultimately adopted Dick Fosbury’s more effective jumping technique (and every serious high jumper since 1980 has done exactly that), police officers who want to protect their peers and their careers ultimately will adopt NOPD’s more effective peer intervention technique. After watching the department’s EPIC training, reading the unassailable social science upon which it is based, and hearing the stories of success from those who have put their new skills into action, I have little doubt that, in time, seeing a police officer afraid to intervene to keep a colleague from making a mistake or engaging in misconduct will be just as surprising as it would be to see an Olympic athlete today attempting a high jump using the long-outdated Western Roll.
*Jonathan Aronie is a graduate of Duke University School of Law, a partner in the Washington, DC office of Sheppard Mullin, and the co-leader of the firm’s Government Contracts and Internal Investigations practice. In 2013, Jonathan was appointed by the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Louisiana, as the Federal Monitor over the New Orleans Police Department, responsible for evaluating and reporting on the Department’s compliance with a 492 paragraph Consent Decree. Jonathan’s bio is available at www.sheppardmullin.com/jaronie. Information regarding NOPD’s EPIC program, including free course materials and a teacher’s guide, is available at epic.nola.gov.
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