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New Orleans Police Program Aims To Stop Police Misconduct, Reduce Burnout


Police misconduct is hard to track and hard to control. Research indicates it can spread through departments from one officer to another. NPR's law enforcement correspondent Martin Kaste's been looking at one police department's efforts to encourage the spread of good conduct among officers and colleagues.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: George Wood is a sociologist at Northwestern University, where he focuses on police. Sociologists like big datasets. And awhile back, he got access to a lot of data about the Chicago Police Department - six years' worth of complaints.

GEORGE WOOD: One immediate takeaway is the scale of misconduct - of reported misconduct - is large.

KASTE: And in those 16,000 complaints, he says you can see certain tendencies.

WOOD: These patterns sort of form - like, create this kind of clustering in these what we call networks of police misconduct.

KASTE: And other studies have shown something similar. When it comes to misconduct, police seem to be influenced by their peers. But one police department is now trying to reverse that process in New Orleans. Four years ago, it started a program called Ethical Policing Is Courageous, or EPIC.

ERNEST LUSTER: We've been using it as a verb.

KASTE: This is Sergeant Ernest Luster explaining what it means for an NOPD officer to be EPIC'ed (ph).

LUSTER: We see an officer possibly going outside the lines of his duties, we'll yell out EPIC, and that'll bring that person back to what they were taught and trained.

KASTE: EPIC is about using peer pressure to stop misconduct. It's a training program. It uses a lot of roleplaying. For instance, junior cops are asked to think through how they might go about intervening with an older officer who's about to break the rules without seeming disrespectful. Luster recalls how a younger officer did that to him in real life just a few months ago. It was during an arrest when a suspect tried to kick him.

LUSTER: I'm angry. I'm emotional. I'm ready to fight a guy that's already handcuffed. All of a sudden, this officer with two years on the job, he steps over. He says, Sarge. He put his hands on my chest, all right? And immediately, EPIC came to mind, and I walked away.

KASTE: Luster's a 22-year vet and is hoping to make lieutenant soon, and he says he might have flushed away his whole career if that younger officer hadn't stepped in at that moment.

The biggest challenge for this program is the blue wall of silence - cops' reluctance to snitch on other cops. Lisa Kurtz, who helps to run EPIC, says the key there is to try to reframe what loyalty means.

LISA KURTZ: We say, yes, sure, you have a loyalty to your fellow officer, but what that looks like is not protecting them when they do wrong. It's keeping them from doing wrong in the first place.

KASTE: In practice, that means teaching cops to watch their colleagues for signs of stress and to encourage them to get help before a bad attitude leads to misconduct. And if no rule has been broken yet, there's a safe harbor.

KURTZ: If you see that officer maybe pulling his hand back thinking, I'm going to hit this person, and you stop him, remove him from the situation and you take over before any misconduct has occurred, you don't need to report that intervention.

KASTE: So is it working? Sergeant Luster says there's a lot less excessive force now, but that could be due to any number of changes in recent years, such as the introduction of body cameras. And things aren't perfect in New Orleans. In recent weeks, the department has been dealing with fallout from alleged misconduct by officers in the French Quarter. Still, EPIC is making a difference, says Jonathan Aronie.

JONATHAN ARONIE: It has empowered people to do the right thing.

KASTE: Aronie is the federal monitor for NOPD, which means he monitors the progress of reforms that the department agreed to eight years ago. Asked if EPIC has changed the once notoriously corrupt department, he says this.

ARONIE: Recently, after the George Floyd incident, rank-and-file police officers from New Orleans asked if they could go to every roll call to talk to police officers and remind them about what EPIC is and why it's important and what it means.

KASTE: Aronie believes in EPIC so much, he's working with Georgetown Law School in Washington to create a national version called ABLE, Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement. It's just launching now, but organizers already report intense interest from police departments, and they hope to start training this fall.

Martin Kaste, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.
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