Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer currently on trial for the killing of George Floyd, is an all-too familiar type: a bully with a badge and gun. During his 19 years as an officer, Chauvin was the subject of a score of misconduct complaints. He kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes not because he had to, but because he could.
That the world contains sadistic, racist bullies isn’t breaking news. But, while the national media understandably puts a spotlight on Chauvin, we should not forget that three other Minneapolis police officers were also on the scene that day last May: Officers Tou Thao, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng. Their sheer passivity was, in some ways, more stunning than Chauvin’s casual cruelty. They all stood by and watched as Chauvin pressed Floyd’s face into the ground and as Floyd’s pleas for help grew increasingly desperate. Ultimately, they stood by and watched him die.
Whether or not Chauvin’s trial leads to a conviction, American police departments urgently need to implement high-quality active bystandership training programs to reduce this kind of deadly passivity. These programs can’t turn sadistic bullies into compassionate protectors, and they can’t address the deep structural problems that plague American policing. But, by giving ordinary officers concrete skills to step in to prevent abuses, such training can save lives.
Officers Thao, Lane and Kueng offer a perfect example of what psychologists call “the bystander effect.” They were paralyzed by the powerful social forces that too often operate to prevent even decent people from taking action to halt abuses.
Although Officer Thao was a nine-year police department veteran with several prior misconduct complaints of his own, Lane and Kueng were unjaded rookies, each less than a week out of field training, and they were perceived by their peers as caring, idealistic young officers. Kueng, one of just 80 Black officers in a department of 900, had joined the Minneapolis police because he hoped an increasingly diverse force would reduce police racism and aggression toward people of color. Lane, who tutored Somali children in his spare time, was known for his calmness and his ability to defuse tense situations.
So why did neither man intervene when it became clear that Floyd was struggling to breathe? For that matter, why didn’t any of the half-dozen New York City police who watched Officer Daniel Pantaleo place Eric Garner in a chokehold in 2014 step in to aide Garner? Why did none of the six Baltimore officers involved in Freddie Gray’s 2015 arrest point out the need to secure Gray’s seat belt after loading him into a police van? In far too many police abuse cases, other officers could have intervened to prevent harm, but instead remained passive.
The bystander effect, which social psychologists have puzzled over for decades, is hardly limited to police officers. Think of the millions of ordinary Germans who watched Nazi abuses with dismay but didn’t speak out as their Jewish neighbors were rounded up. Or Kitty Genovese’s neighbors, who neither intervened nor called 911 as she was stabbed to death on a Queens street in 1964. On a more mundane level, think of all the people who look away and pretend not to notice when a school or workplace bully taunts some unlucky victim.
Scores of studies have documented the bystander effect, and we now have a fairly clear understanding of the factors that can lead ordinary people to do nothing even when morality seems to demand intervention. People are less likely to intervene when faced with ambiguous rather than clear situations, for instance. They’re less likely to intervene when surrounded by peers who are also doing nothing, or when intervention would require challenging those they perceive as having authority. They’re also less likely to intervene when they believe someone else will, or should, take action, or to help those whom they view as culturally different from themselves.
All of these factors appear to have been at play in the moments leading to Floyd’s death. Chauvin was the most experienced officer on the scene, and the less experienced officers deferred to his judgment; Chauvin was insistent about keeping Floyd on the ground and indicated that he was taking steps to keep Floyd alive, creating, for the other officers, a degree of ambiguity about whether Chauvin’s actions were inappropriate. Each of the three officers could see that none of his colleagues was intervening to stop Chauvin, thus diffusing responsibility for any bad outcomes. Finally, differences of class, race and culture might have allowed the officers to view Floyd as “other,” rather than as someone they felt obligated to help.
Humans are social animals. We’re biologically hardwired to form groups. But our social nature has a dark side: We find it easy to disregard the suffering of those outside our own groups, especially when our peers or leaders seem to be doing the same. These phenomena can be especially strong in cohesive groups such as the military, sports teams, fraternities and, of course, police forces.
As a former reserve police officer in Washington, D.C., I saw this firsthand. From their first moments at the academy, police recruits have loyalty and obedience drummed into them, and are acculturated to see their identity as police officers as trumping other identities. (“I don’t care what color you are,” one of our police academy instructors bawled at new recruits. “From now on, you’re all gonna bleed blue!”). For cops, backing up fellow officers is akin to a sacrament, and apparent group disloyalty is a quick route to ostracism.
But there is nothing inevitable about police passivity in the face of abuses committed by other officers. On the contrary, strong evidence from psychology and social science research suggests that effective intervention is a skill like any other: It can be taught, and it can be learned. It’s not enough for officials to just tell cops to intervene if they see inappropriate or dangerous behavior, however. Creating a culture in which individuals intervene to stop misconduct and mistakes takes determined, sustained effort, both individual and organizational. It also takes practice.
One of the first steps is redefining loyalty. Campaigns to reduce drunk driving offer a model. Initially, they were met with little success; few people wanted to seem like killjoys by taking car keys away from a friend who was “just having fun.” Only when the message shifted to “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk” did the culture begin to shift. Instead of defining loyalty as “letting your friends do whatever they want,” loyalty was redefined as “helping your friends avoid potentially fatal mistakes.” And groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving offered simple, practical advice: Pick a designated driver before going out; accept that a drunk person probably won’t appreciate it when you take away the car keys, but do it anyway.
Drunk driving fatalities have dropped dramatically in the decades since the “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk” campaign began. Similar bystander intervention programs have been successful in settings as disparate as the airplane cockpit and the surgical operating theater — places where hierarchy, obedience, conformity and group loyalty are prized, but where, as with policing, the cost of mistakes and misconduct can be catastrophic.
Police officers, too, can learn how to avoid being passive bystanders in the face of mistakes, misconduct and abuse. Programs such as the Ethical Policing is Courageous (EPIC) program in New Orleans or the Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement (ABLE) Project at Georgetown, where I co-direct the Innovative Policing Program, draw directly on the insights of psychologists such as Erwin Staub, who conducted some of the most pathbreaking research on bystander intervention. Georgetown’s ABLE Project, which launched in the months following Floyd’s killing, has already provided active bystander training for more than 100 police departments around the United States, helping officers to gain the concrete skills needed to intervene effectively. So far, the evidence suggests such programs can make a real difference. For instance, although direct causation is difficult to establish, citizen complaints about police went down in New Orleans after all officers received active bystander training through EPIC, as did incidents of unnecessary force.
Police organizations that are committed to creating a culture of active bystandership tell officers that loyalty doesn’t mean standing idly by as colleagues behave abusively; loyalty means keeping fellow officers from taking actions that could hurt them or others. (Friends don’t let friends act in ways that will get them fired or prosecuted.) And active bystandership isn’t solely about preventing egregious abuses. Police officers need the skills to intervene as well if a colleague inadvertently overlooks a safety issue, or if a fellow officer shows signs of severe untreated PTSD. High-quality active bystandership training also isn’t just a matter of lectures and PowerPoint slides; it requires extensive use of case studies and role-play exercises. One key lesson officers learn in this kind of training is that initial attempts to intervene often are brushed aside or angrily dismissed, and effective intervention requires persistence — including, ultimately, a willingness to physically move a fellow officer aside and take over if there is no other way to stop dangerous or abusive behavior.
Would bystander training have made a difference on the day George Floyd died? Consider Lane, the rookie Minneapolis officer who, along with Thao and Kueng, now faces charges of aiding and abetting second-degree murder and manslaughter. (The three are awaiting trial in August, though their lawyers recently called for their charges to be dismissed.) Video footage of Floyd’s death suggests Lane was uneasy about Chauvin’s actions. At one point, he suggested rolling Floyd onto his side. When Chauvin refused, Lane offered a vague expression of concern for Floyd’s health, but when Chauvin snapped, “[That’s] why we got the ambulance coming,” Lane backed down. A little later, Lane noted that Floyd appeared to be “passing out” and asked once more if Floyd should be rolled over — but again, he didn’t persist when Chauvin ignored him.
While Lane and his fellow officers legally were required to intervene if needed to prevent abuses, the Minneapolis Police Department did not offer any specific training in how to do so. If they had been through an active bystandership training program, perhaps they would have felt more empowered to speak out. And perhaps Lane would have understood that would-be interveners are almost always rebuffed at first, but that increasingly forceful persistence — and, ultimately, action — can prevent abuses. Perhaps one of the officers simply would have pulled Chauvin off Floyd, saying, “I can’t let you do this. He’s going to get hurt, or worse, and you’re going to get fired, or worse. Let me handle this.”
And perhaps George Floyd would still be alive today.