No one spoke his name, but George Floyd lingered over the St. Paul police officers’ lesson plan.
Floyd’s death became a rallying cry across the country for police reform, but also a case study for law enforcement officials in what went wrong. Departments are refreshing duty-to-intervene policies and forcing tough conversations about the real-world consequences of inaction.
In St. Paul, more than 600 officers will complete ethics training this fall about doing what’s right even if — and especially when — it’s difficult. The course identifies a framework for making moral and professional decisions in the line of duty, while examining the external factors that may prevent cops from speaking up:
Fear of repercussions. Alienation from peers. Lack of confidence correcting a superior.
Instructor Chad Weinstein used this example: Say there’s one officer on every shift that colleagues don’t want responding to a call because they’re likely “to make things worse.”
“If that’s true, you gotta do something,” Weinstein told a small group of officers gathered at the department’s training center Tuesday afternoon. “We’re not doing that cop any favors by not addressing that problem; what we’re doing is sowing seeds of catastrophe.”
Weinstein, who’s tasked with leading 42 iterations of the two-hour class this fall, asked officers to brainstorm examples of a “moment of truth” in which they could act with moral courage. Suggestions ranged from offering constructive criticism to a colleague to taking over a call for a partner who lost their temper, even if no one else noticed.
“We become what we do over time,” Weinstein said, imploring officers to consider possible outcomes before making decisions. “This job will eat your humanity if you let it.”
The exercise was meant as a precursor to the nationally recognized peer intervention training program Ethical Policing Is Courageous (EPIC). That course, scheduled for October, teaches law enforcement officers how to intervene through role-playing.
Proponents of the EPIC program believe it could have helped save Floyd’s life. Now some members of the Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training want to roll out the training statewide.
Chief Todd Axtell says he’s worked to outline clear expectations for his rank-and-file about the “moral obligation” to step in when a fellow officer’s actions are improper — no matter how long you’ve been wearing the badge.
“I don’t know of any duties more important,” said Axtell, who scheduled both continuing education programs before Floyd’s death.
In a recent interview, Axtell recounted an experience early in his career when he responded to a call regarding a drunk man on the city’s East Side. Upon arrival, he and his partner spotted a man with a backpack, who appeared homeless. His partner spoke with “little respect, if any” toward the man, and the officer started tossing papers from his stuffed wallet during the exchange. Baffled, Axtell says he retrieved the papers and apologized to the man, explaining that his partner must be having a bad day.
“Sometimes all you have left in this world is your dignity,” he said. “Looking back now, I feel terrible that I didn’t step in sooner and keep that from happening.”
Lou Ferraro, a 18-year veteran who acts as a field training officer, said he works to empower younger cops to speak their mind. Sometimes, that’s as simple as offering to finish the call for a co-worker who’s suffering from “tunnel vision.”
Ferraro recalled having to do just that for his partner four years ago when they became too aggravated while escorting a drunk person to detox who hurled vulgarities at the officer.
Offering to finish the call is “not done in a disrespectful way,” he said following Tuesday’s training. “You just can’t take it personally.”
Like many agencies, the Minneapolis Police Department mandates a duty to intervene to prevent another officer from engaging in misconduct, but it is not clear how that training occurs.
When officer Derek Chauvin, a department veteran of more than 20 years, planted his knee on the on the neck of George Floyd for more than eight minutes, three less-experienced cops failed to stop him.
All four officers have since been fired and face felony charges.
For Weinstein, the case informs the way in which chain of command can interfere with an officer’s duty to intervene. “We have an opportunity to learn from what happened,” he said, adding that he alludes to the case without naming Floyd because he doesn’t want his public comments to influence ongoing legal proceedings.
Two days after Floyd’s death, Axtell was unequivocal with his officers that “something went horribly wrong” at the intersection of 38th and Chicago that night. He asked them to reconsider their career choice if they would have acted the same as those officers involved.
“You have an obligation to intervene regardless of time on the job or regardless of rank,” he later told the Star Tribune. “If I, as the chief of police, is on a call and I’m losing my temper, I want a one-day officer to be empowered and trained appropriately enough to tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘Chief, I’ve got this one.’ ”
Liz Sawyer • 612-673-4648