Build an agency culture that accepts a duty to intervene (2023)

Helping colleagues avoid behavior that threatens their livelihood, emotional well-being and freedoms is in no way uncomfortable for a department or community.

IsDeath of George FloydIt was a tragedy that continues to influence the direction of national dialogue on policing practices, with a strong focus onduty of law enforcement officers to intervenewhen they observe another police officer using allegedly unconstitutional force.

Changes in Department Policiesand state legislation was enacted to more specifically and purposefully address the lack of intervention illustrated by this event. Early intervention indeed in the George Floyd casehe canwould have prevented Floyd's death and certainly improved Derek Chauvin's chances of a legal outcome.

A department steeped in an intervention culture would have offered the best chance of an outcome that could mitigate or prevent the magnitude of the event and the resulting trauma to families, the nation, and the law enforcement profession. Developing this culture requires agencies and officers to engage in the practice of “intervention” across a spectrum of behaviors to achieve consistently better policing interactions, policing outcomes and officer well-being. Interventions should not be understood as being specific to any context of violence.

Build an agency culture that accepts a duty to intervene (1)

Prepare officials for an intervention mentality

"Code of Silence" is a term used to describe the belief that "good" police officers will not report officers involved in wrongdoing. At an extreme level, it is a refusal to testify, or even to testify falsely, to hold another officer accountable, whether internally or in a criminal proceeding.

To be clear, this "code" is one seen in the strongest social identity dynamics, or where members of a particular community are interdependent for physical, financial, or emotional security. In a neighborhood context, this code was captured by the phrase "whistleblowers get points" and was problematic in holding even those who commit murder accountable. People don't talk to the police, not because they're afraid of them (in fact, many scenes show the complete opposite, where the police are verbally and physically abused), but because the neighbors are afraid of the person who committed the murder. , or its partners.

The Code is based on the belief that uncovering problematic behavior will have negative consequences. In fact, the entire team turned a blind eye to the years of rampant sexual harassment by politicians, then coordinated efforts to discredit or belittle the person who exposed the behavior. "Codes of silence" are so pervasive that whistleblower protection laws exist to protect those who report immoral, unethical, or criminal activity.

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Lawyers, politicians, doctors, accountants, and all types of professions have those willing to overlook unethical or illegal behavior because of loyalty to a person or organization or fear of the consequences of reporting the behavior. Cops are no different than humans, but they should be. The expectation that officers are different should be instilled early in a person's career, although such training will have little effect when the culture of the department they are in is more intent on shielding officers from the consequences of their behavior to protect than you. to carry out such actions. behaviors

Developing a culture of intervention is a significant cognitive shift. An officer's initiation into policing must include a strong belief that officers must look out for, help and protect one another, but for these interventions to be effective they must be before or during an incident and not in the shadows. . . Aftermath of a

The intervention mentality begins with the belief that the best way to protect other officers from disciplinary action, civil liability, or criminal charges is to detain or prevent them from engaging in conduct that could lead to such outcomes. It should also be clear to officials that rank is irrelevant to this mindset.

Policing: developing a culture of accountability

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Intervention as a practical matter

The vast majority of police officers go to work every day with the intention of doing the right thing for the right reasons and making a difference in their communities. However, work-related stressors and repeated trauma take their toll.

A police officer who is the epitome of professionalism day after day and year after year may struggle after working on too many child sexual assaults, too many domestic assaults, or too many protests where he or his families are attacked and threatened become . they are threatened. When someone tells you they are going to hurt your family (rape, hit, or otherwise attack them), it can trigger an emotional response. These people, whether predators or protesters, are often very conscious of saying things to evoke a reaction, and when successful, they redouble their efforts to try to evoke an emotionally charged response that they use for their own ends can use.

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A significantly elevated emotional level worsens several key components of the decision-making process. A negative emotional state negatively affects a person's inhibition, the ability to act impulsively, e.g. For example, wanting to hit someone, making an honest assessment of the person in front of them, or abusing positional authority.

Equally worrisome is limited cognitive flexibility, the ability to "rapidly grasp and integrate new information, solve problems more creatively, and (and) respond quickly to changing conditions," such as: B. Recognizing that a person is intentionally teasing you in a discussion. , realizing that your current behavior isn't helping to end it, determining different strategies to defuse or ending the argument, and then choosing another one to implement.

This approach also has significant implications for the use of force when an officer or suspect is experiencing an acute stress response. People experiencing an acute stress response may exhibit a range of perceptual distortions, including tunnel vision and auditory effacement, in addition to impaired executive functioning, as their attention span is completely consumed by the task at hand. Therefore, intervening officers need to know that emotional responses require them to divert or attract the attention of the target of their intervention in order to effect behavior change. Intervention mechanisms must be in place to ensure interventions across the spectrum of behaviors that may result in disciplinary, civil, and criminal penalties. Intervention steps can be categorized according to their place in the prevention spectrum:

  • Avoid
  • deter / intercept
  • separate
  • Impede.


In practice, it is best not to put a police officer in a position where they are likely to act more emotionally or aggressively, e.g. B. If a police officer is clearly angry when you come to work. This phase is the earliest form of intervention.

Recognizing that an officer is unusually angry, moody, calm, restless, or otherwise behaving significantly outside of that person's norm is a sign that a stressor is already at play. Cops face the same family, romantic, financial, and social problems as everyone else. They have sick children, marital problems, relationship problems, and all kinds of human stressors that can make them feel bad, which may not lead to successful or optimal outcomes when those stressors overlap with phone-related stressors. Agents who are significantly outside of their core behavior should be assigned to roles where contact with citizens is limited or absent. Don't send angry cops to check the radar. Another officer might get a call from someone who shouldn't be interacting with the public in the short term (in the long term, that would be a whole different issue).

deter / intercept

The second level of intervention is the deterrence/interception phase. This level applies to the officers listed above or any officer moving towards negative citizen interaction.

Most officers received a call with several units responding to a disturbance outside the local bar, arriving to see a crowd of intoxicated onlookers watching a rowdy fight between two intoxicated individuals or groups of friends. The cops come, separate the parties involved, endure some verbal abuse from one of the parties or someone in the crowd, resolve the conflict and fire the people. Problem solved, nobody goes to jail, it's a good result.

Except for the big mouth. This is the guy who couldn't help but fire a parting shot at an officer: "If you didn't have that badge and that gun I'd kick your ass, white white white white!" The officer pauses for half a second , as if thinking, and then walks straight towards Foz, walking with aseeand asks a simple question: "What @#$% did you tell me?"

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Most officers saw this and were there. Nothing good will happen if these people are allowed to continue their conversation. The official does not approach La Boca to assure that person that the beauty of the Constitution is allowing citizens like him to be abusive, mean, unhappy, and petty without government agents violating their rights. Instead, this confrontation usually results in increased crowd involvement by all officials, necessitating the need to (re)establish order. Other officers at the crime scene should intercept the officer, divert it, and remove the officer from the source of stress prior to contact.


Withdrawal is required when an employee is already involved in an ill-conceived event, or when an employee who was initially or continues to be involved in a legal transaction becomes involved in an interaction that is no longer constructive or otherwise. . It no longer serves a legitimate law enforcement purpose, such as B. exchanging insults, trying to win a war of words, raging debates over legal issues, and defending rather than explaining actions. It may also be required when a police officer serving a lawful purpose orders or inadvertently does unconstitutional things: instruct someone to stop filming the interaction, or conduct a full search, if only a limited search or "search". " . justified, are examples.

In these cases, officers have already engaged in conduct that could result in poor results, disciplinary action, or worse, and need protection from escalating matters. Essentially, you're getting the cop out of a bad or potentially bad situation.

Sever/Extract is designed to minimize damage already done or prevent an interaction from escalating to a point where negative outcomes have an incredibly high probability. When an officer arrives to assist another at a traffic stop and is told, "Keep talking and see what happens!" or comes to assist an officer about a loud noise complaint and watches the officer with tingling fingers and spitting saliva, bulging neck, wide-eyed, crampedness in a minor, faces inches apart, probably these must Officials become emotionally or physically disconnected or distant, or out of the situation.

Likewise, a detainee who does not pose an immediate threat may be placed in the recovery position or even in a sitting position. If this has not been done, a reminder to this effect by another officer is consistent with the separation/extraction concept.


This is the final stage of the intervention spectrum, where an officer physically impedes or interrupts the behavior of another officer. It is imperative that the arresting officer fully understands the context and threat faced by another officer before attempting to physically stop them.

In the context of surveillance, it may be necessary to prevent an agent from reaching a citizen when the agent cannot be verbally prevented from doing so; An officer can simply block another's path, grab an arm, or hold the person down. In the context of the extract, verbal intervention may not work and the same types of physical interventions can be used. An active use of force situation is different when the responding officer approaches an ongoing event and does not understand the context of the violence or the possibility of an ongoing threat. In this dynamic, the intervening officer must communicate with the violent officer in the absence of a clear and compelling personal observation that the issue of violence is not an imminent threat.

For example, the officers return to the same bar for another brawl and are momentarily pulled in different directions, losing contact with one another. There is a commotion and screams, and Officer A runs across the parking lot to see Officer B pin a person against a pickup truck and repeatedly knees the person down. Subject appears to be hunched over while trying to avoid knee strikes. Officer A cannot simply push Officer B away from the person without knowing why Officer B is using force; Again, missing Officer A determines that the subject poses no immediate threat to Officer B. Given that both officer B and subject are likely to experience some level of cognitive and perceptual impairment or impairment, officer A must have some mechanism in place to maintain control of B's ​​attention long enough to redirect some cognitive resources so that Officer B can communicate the threat (or lack of a threat). When this occurs, Officer B can slow down, or Officer A can physically intervene if appropriate, or Officer A can assist Officer B with an ongoing threat.

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Leadership and intervention culture

The level of intervention that is easiest to address in politics and legislation is the obligation to intervene in cases of “excessive” use of force or even outside of politics. This can become problematic when agencies try to go beyond the bordersGraham's Standard of Appropriateness.

Leadership can mitigate this by ensuring officers fully understand the agency's policies, since words like "required," "minimum," and "any other viable options" mean different things to different people, especially when experience is considered. , the skills, confidence and confidence of an officer. Abilities influenced by fatigue, fear and environmental conditions, among others. Leadership can help foster a culture of intervention by adhering to the following principles:

  • Model behaviors consistent with appreciating intervention efforts, regardless of rank or experience level, since you cannot say that intervention is expected and then communicate otherwise by punishing or taunting and taking action on the officer who does so when the concerns are reported .
  • Ensure intervention is understood as an ongoing effort with ways to protect officers from themselves during their missions.
  • make senseScenario-based training at all intervention that the mechanisms designed as safeguards for officials are well understood. This training must be designed to ward off antagonistic comments from citizens and immunization officials.
  • Make the application of force policies clear so there is no confusion about what each standard means or how the standard will be evaluated.
  • For tense, uncertain, and fast-moving events, provide a phrase or code that will grab officers' attention and give them an opportunity to re-evaluate or share their work, or a similar mechanism that serves the same purpose. This is easily integrated into defensive tactics training.

While intervention is rarely required, it is an essential part of protecting other officers and can be implemented in many police interactions. The names used in this article for the types of interventions are irrelevant, any agency can create their own as long as the concepts are adopted by an agency.

Helping other officers avoid behavior that threatens their livelihood, emotional well-being and freedom does not harm the department or the community. In fact, if a police officer doesn't accept an intervention, that person is probably on the job for the wrong reasons.

NEXT:Protecting Cops From Themselves: Self-Control Tactics

About the author

Brian N. O'Donnell is a second lieutenant with the Charlottesville, Virginia City Police Department. He served as an infantry officer in the United States Marine Corps and as an officer in the Charlottesville Police Department for over 24 years. He has a B.A. in Economics from Northwestern University and an M.S. in Criminal Justice from Liberty University.Lt. O'Donnell is a 2016 graduate of the National Command College of Criminal Justice at the University of Virginia, received the Advanced Specialist designation from the Institute of Force Sciences in 2018, and became an IADLEST National Certified Instructor in 2020. Lt. O'Donnell is currently assigned to Patrol Division as second shift commander.

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