Few will deny the complexities involved in law enforcement reforms and efforts meant to prevent the horrors seen in just the past year while recognizing the difficulties and demands placed on those we expect to protect our communities.
That much is clear in a recent debate in the Legislature regarding a bill that would mandate that a law enforcement officer must intervene when witnessing another officer engaging in excessive force or other wrongdoing. As reported last week by The Herald’s Jerry Cornfield, Senate Bill 5066, sets standards for on-scene intervention and reporting of wrongdoing by fellow officers, legislation borne out of numerous incidents but most memorably in the May 25 death of George Floyd.
Floyd, in a video still burned into the minds of those who have seen it, suffocated to death under a knee to the back of his neck by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Chauvin held his weight against Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, all while two other officers assisted in restraining Floyd and a third prevented bystanders from interfering. Chauvin’s trial for second-degree murder is to begin this March. Trial of the other three officers for aiding and abetting second-degree murder is scheduled to follow in August.
The intent of the Washington state bill, which has passed the Senate and is now in the House, is to provide the tools and support for “good officers who want to do the right thing” and prevent deaths like Floyd’s.
“We need to make a substantial change and make sure everyone in our state can trust law enforcement is there to protect them,” said state Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, a sponsor of the legislation.
Opponents of the bill argue that while a “Good Samaritan” policy for police makes sense, it could be viewed suspiciously by officers because it could harm morale among ranks, make it harder to recruit and retain officers and doesn’t make clear what would be expected of officers in requiring intervention.
The obligation to intervene — using the example of George Floyd’s death — wouldn’t seem difficult to understand, but to be accepted and effective that mandate needs backup from the presence and force of stated policy, commitment from an agency’s leadership and the discussion and training to enforce that duty.
As we related last June, training and policy in the Everett department may have been key to keeping an arrest here — a day before Floyd’s arrest and death — from becoming another sad example and a flashpoint for unrest.
Encouragingly, some law enforcement agencies, including the Everett Police Department, are engaged in that work already. Everett, under the leadership of Chief Dan Templeman, has joined a program, developed by Georgetown University’s Innovative Policing Program called ABLE for Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement.
Project ABLE provides a national hub for training, technical assistance and research, focused on creating a police culture that will enable officers to prevent misconduct, avoid costly mistakes and promote officer health and wellness.
The program, Templeman said, “is designed to save lives, careers and community trust.”
The department’s work with ABLE, Templeman said during a recent conversation with The Herald Editorial Board, is one of several initiatives and programs that the Everett department is undertaking, including full implementation to equip officers on patrol with body-worn cameras.
Everett, along with the Seattle Police Department, is one of more than 30 agencies nationwide participating in the Georgetown program.
The ABLE training is being woven into other training officers complete, but does require some rethinking of past police culture, the chief said. “One of the main tenets is that rank doesn’t matter when it comes to intervention,” Templeman said, the expectation being that higher-ups have to be held to the same standards as all officers.
Changes to culture, such as that, have led to discussions among officers, he said, but that’s part of the process of adopting such policies, and it was used successfully most recently in winning acceptance among officers and police union officials with the body-worn camera program, he said.
“We came to a place where everybody understood the importance and benefits (the cameras) provide,” Templeman said, in protecting officers as much as the public.
The same types of discussions will be ongoing with the ABLE training.
ABLE and the body-cam program are joined by other initiatives within the Everett department, including a review of the department’s accreditation through the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, an independent in-depth assessment by an outside firm now being selected by the city and a new grant program and partnership with the Snohomish County Prosecutor’s Office. Called Law Enforcement-Assisted Diversion, the program offers a diversion path — rather than arrest and jail — that encourages officers to refer people contacted for minor incidents to case workers who can better address substance abuse and similar issues.
Similar to the social workers embedded with patrols that Everett and other agencies in the county have used successfully, the LEAD program adds another layer of such referrals, but allows officers to make the initial contact to safely assess the best course for the situation. The Lynnwood Police Department also is participating in the program.
The events of the past year have put the actions — good and bad — of law enforcement officers in stark light, from Floyd’s death to the heroics shown by police protecting the lives of those at the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 siege by pro-Trump rioters. Those perspectives should influence and inform the ongoing debate regarding issues of funding and reform for law enforcement as well as our expectations for those who choose policing as a career.
Templeman doesn’t pretend that programs such as ABLE should give the department a pass from scrutiny when something goes wrong in his department.
“I’m not saying we’re perfect as an agency,” he said, “or that we’re doing everything right.”
But neither is his department ignoring the challenges that demand attention and change.