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NORTH SALT LAKE — When a police officer sees his or her partner — or even supervisor — get too heated or emotional during an arrest, would that officer feel comfortable stepping in and pulling that officer back?
A special training being offered this week to all Utah law enforcers looks to address that very scenario.
Officers from more than 30 agencies across the state are gathering in North Salt Lake for a training session developed by the Georgetown University Law Center called the Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement Project, or ABLE Project. The goal of the training is to create a culture within policing in which officers know when to intervene with other officers, and feel comfortable doing so, as well as teaching officers — even if they are supervisors and administrators — how to accept the intervention.
One of the goals of the training is to mitigate the risk of police tragedies such as the 2020 confrontation between officers in Minnesota and George Floyd.
"The George Floyd situation, the Rodney King situation, where there are several people who are there observing a situation, yet no one steps forward actively to make a difference. And that's what we're learning in this training, to step forward, actively bystand and to make a difference," said Steven Hansen, CEO of Utah Local Governments Trust, the group co-sponsoring the Utah training session. Utah Local Governments Trust provides insurance to local government agencies, including law enforcement.
Through classroom instruction and many role-playing scenarios, the training aims to empower officers to step in if they see another officer getting heated, without the issues of rank, gender or other social issues acting as inhibitors.
Hansen said the active bystander idea has worked in other fields such as medical and aviation in an effort to help prevent mistakes, and he believes it will work for law enforcement.
Logan Police Chief Gary Jensen, who helped write the application to bring the training to Utah, says he believes officers in the state are already good at stepping in when they need to.
"This isn't necessarily new to us," he said. "But we're definitely taking this formal class and we're bringing this forward and we're going to teach it in a more formal setting."
Jensen, who reviews every police use-of-force incident in Logan, says he sees officers making good decisions all the time as well as "active bystandership," meaning officers are helping each other keep their emotions in check. He recalled a recent incident in which an officer with just one year of experience intervened with a veteran officer after a suspect was already in custody during what the chief described as a "very emotional call."
"He needed to get that officer to bring his emotion back down to where he felt it should be. So he literally went over and kind of tapped his partner on the shoulder and said, 'Hey, go take a breath for a second. I got this.' That's exactly what this training is about, is keeping us healthy," the chief said.
Jensen said there was even one time in his career when an officer tapped him on the shoulder and had him step back.
"I appreciated and still appreciate it," he said. "I was able to check back and come down a little bit and meet the situation in a better fashion. It was good."
Officers are often able to set the tone of a call. "If we're emotional beyond reason, then the incident rises to our level," Jensen said, adding that if an officer can manage his or her emotions, then the situation is more likely to remain stable.
That isn't always easy, the chief admitted. Law enforcers are human and will have moments when emotions are elevated. But he said that's why training like this is important, because officers are also held to a higher standard in the public eye.
"There is an absolutism in law enforcement. We are expected always to be 100%, no error. No error. That's tough. We're human. There are times we get emotional. There are times we feel like, perhaps, we're under attack. But the public has no tolerance for error," he said. "Yes, you can tap the chief on the shoulder and say, 'Hey Chief, I got this,' and hope there won't be repercussions. I believe we have that culture in Logan."
According to the Utah Local Governments Trust, Utah is one of the first states in the nation to offer the training statewide.