MILWAUKEE — When a Milwaukee Police Officer steps out of line, other officers have an obligation to step in. It’s called a “duty to intervene.” As previously reported, it can be a flawed system, but a new program is trying a new way to train law enforcement how to police each other.
The Active Bystandership in Law Enforcement Project, shortened to the acronym ABLE, was created in 2020 by Georgetown University. Its creators used the framework from a similar program called EPIC, or Ethical Policing Is Courageous, by the New Orleans Police Department.
“We had great success with EPIC in New Orleans,” Lisa A. Kurtz, ABLE Project Director, said. “But in the summer of 2020 following the murder of George Floyd, there was a tremendous need that agencies recognized around the country for a training that would empower their officers to intervene.”
Kurtz helped develop the new ABLE Project. She says 249 law enforcement agencies across the country are now ABLE certified. One of the newest departments involved in the program is the Milwaukee Police Department. It is also the first department in the State of Wisconsin to be ABLE certified.
The Council on Criminal Justice reported in 2020, 48 of the 65 largest U.S. police departments had a duty to intervene component to their use of force policies. MPD was one of those.
Despite the rule already being on the books, Kurtz says ABLE will renovate how the policy is implemented for those departments.
“It’s actually a comprehensive program that creates a culture in the agency,” Kurtz said. “The problem is, we haven’t trained officers on how to intervene effectively and we haven’t worked or created cultures where officers feel comfortable intervening and feel comfortable accepting interventions.”
“I’m a trainer at heart,” Capt. Timothy Leitzke said. “I identify a lot of trainings that are important and transformational. The ABLE training is right up there as one of the most important we can deliver for our members right now.”
Leitzke is the Director of Training for MPD. He says the newest recruit class is the first group to go through ABLE training in the department. By next year, every member will be ABLE trained.
“We’ve always had mechanisms, policies and procedures and the training in place to avoid things like that, yet you see George Floyd happen and you understand, what else can we do?” Leitzke said.
Leitzke says every member will go through an eight-hour training session where they will role play and look at real-life scenarios from across the country. It focuses on three pillars: Reducing Mistakes, Preventing Misconduct and Promoting Health & Wellness of Fellow Officers.
This training, Leitzke hopes, will not only empower younger officers to speak up if a superior is out of line, but also teach those superiors how to take an intervention.
“We’re going to protect [a younger officer] when they realize they need to intervene, regardless of rank or seniority or the status of the individual they have to intervene upon,” Leitzke said. “I have confidence our veteran officers will accept that.”
“We talked a lot about blind loyalty versus constructive loyalty,” Kurtz said. “Blind loyalty is that blue wall of silence. That idea of, ‘do whatever you want to do and I’ll help you cover it up.’ We talk instead about constructive loyalty, which is saying, ‘I hold you to a higher standard and hold myself to a higher standard. We know the community holds us to this standard and this duty that we swore to serve and protect. So I wanted to demonstrate my loyalty to you by stopping you from doing this thing that you shouldn’t be doing.”
Making that cultural change requires buy-in from the community, according to Kurtz. She says, in order for a law enforcement agency to be accepted into the ABLE Project, they need to have two letters of support from the community.
Milwaukee Police received a letter of support from Keith Stanley, the Executive Director of Near West Side Partners.
“We thought it was really the key to making sure we have a good, strong, healthy police department,” Stanley said.
Stanley’s letter of support says he wholeheartedly recommends MPD for the program. He says that vow of confidence is due in large part to the leadership of Chief Jeffrey Norman.
“To see Chief Jeffrey Norman leading the charge and saying listen, here’s your new policy, here’s the new way that we can make sure we hold our officers and other officers will hold themselves accountable, it’s important,” Stanley said. “I don’t know what it would look like if it was another person in that position.”
This is also something he feels is different from the past. Where other departments may check off a box for trainings like this, Stanley feels like this is a foundational element of how MPD will act moving forward.
“This is actually taking place,” Stanley said. “This is actually action that’s taking place to make sure we’re doing the right thing. It’s a value of community policing. We all have eyes and ears to make sure things are going correctly.”
The eyes and ears extend beyond the boundaries of the City of Milwaukee. Kurtz says, the department has certain benchmarks it has to hit with annual refreshers and check-ins. Otherwise, they could be kicked out.
“We really don’t want agencies that are going to look at this as a check the box exercise or as kind of a one and done training,” Kurtz said. “Removing an agency from ABLE is the last thing that any of us want to do. The only time when we really feel that we have to kind of cut ties with an agency is when they are clearly not committed to the standards.”
That happened with the Orlando Police Department in February. Local reports from WFTV-9 said officers were not taking the full eight-hour training class as required. In addition, an Orlando PD Lieutenant raised concerns about the “fidelity to the ABLE core curriculum.” That trainer was removed from training duties a month later.
An ABLE team member followed up with a classroom observation, according to WFTV-9 and confirmed what the instructor said was true.
“There wasn’t fidelity to the curriculum,” Kurtz said. “There wasn’t fidelity to the standards and there wasn’t a willingness to say, let’s move in the right direction. So we felt that there was a misalignment of values. For an agency to say they’re unable, that really means something to us and we want to make sure that it means something to all of our agencies. It’s really important that we have agencies in ABLE that are truly committed to these principles.”
It's an example of how this isn’t just window dressing or lip service by a local law enforcement agency. Now that MPD has been accepted and will have its entire department trained within a year, their accountability towards a genuine effort at reforming will be in the control of a third party.
“This is always very important to make sure we’re providing constitutional policing,” Leitzke said.