Several topics and concepts are important for a law enforcement officer to understand. Interestingly, one of the topics that has received much more attention in the last few years is the duty to intervene.
Essentially, this involves recognizing when another officer is using or about to use excessive force and intervening either physically, verbally, or both.
It takes a very skilled trainer to teach this concept effectively. In this article, I will share some of the most important things I have learned about training the duty to intervene.
A rare event
When I teach the duty to intervene, one of the first things I emphasize to new officers is that these cases are rare. Statistically, use of force by the police is very unusual (less than 2% of all police-community contacts according to some studies). Cases where an officer uses excessive force are even much less than that. While this does not make the duty to intervene any less critical, it does put into perspective that in most incidents officers use objectively reasonable force.
Know the law and your policies
The next point to consider is that federal law has made clear for decades that police officers must intervene when they see excessive force and they have a reasonable opportunity to do so. In addition to federal law, many state laws and individual departments have policies that require their officers to intervene when they witness excessive force. As with most areas of law enforcement, familiarity with relevant laws and department policies is the first step to understanding the subject.
Why the officers must intervene
Once the topic is put into perspective and the relevant laws and policies are identified, I have found it helpful to explain in more detail why understanding the duty to intervene is so important:
- The intervening officer could save a citizen from unnecessary harm and violation of their constitutional rights.
- The intervening officer could save an officer overwhelmed by the stress and uncertainty of a situation from using force they might not have used under less stressful conditions.
- An intervening officer can help avoid a situation where the community’s perception of law enforcement is negatively affected.
The value of scenario-based training
Scenario-based training is one of the most effective ways to train the duty to intervene. One way to do this is to have the officers in training respond to a call where a role player demonstrates potential indicators of excessive force such as swearing at the subject, additional strikes beyond what seems reasonable, etc. and observe what the student does to intervene.
After the scenario is completed, an active discussion and debriefing of the situation usually results in valuable learning points.
A recurring question during these debriefings is “How can the intervening officer tell if excessive force is being used during a rapidly evolving situation?” The answer is that they may not. Because of this, an officer must assess what is going on in real time and be ready to intervene if they have evidence that it is necessary.
For example, an officer may see another officer strike a subject on the first approach, only to discover that the subject has a knife or other weapon that was not initially visible to the backup officer. It is just one of many scenarios where a responding officer must take a moment to assess the situation before immediately jumping in to intervene.
Another question that often arises is what is an appropriate way to intervene. Patting the officer on the back and giving them an extra job, such as providing a radio update or getting some equipment, is a potentially effective way to dissuade them from using force. This can be difficult for officers, especially if the officer they are removing is senior or higher ranking than them. But it is the right thing for the right reason, and finding this courage in a time of need is crucial.
One training scenario I have used effectively is to have an officer or group of officers respond to a scene where an officer is in the process of handcuffing a subject who is lying down. The subject does not resist the officer, but the role-playing officer shows signs of exhaustion, anger, and lack of composure. This can be achieved through the role player’s language and tone.
The goal of the scenario would be for the responding officers to safely get the subject into custody and a recovery position while recognizing that the first officer should be removed from the situation. There’s more than one way to accomplish these goals, and they make excellent talking points at the end of the scenario.
Most officers do not use excessive force, but many have been in situations where their stress levels have increased to where they are not in the best position to be actively involved in the incident, especially if other officers are present. So if another officer intervenes and removes them from the incident, they are most likely doing so to help everyone involved.
As I said at the beginning, this is a difficult and important subject to understand. Train hard and be safe!