Incoming Baltimore Police Commissioner Takes EPIC Approach to Policing

On January 4, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh announced that she selected New Orleans Police Superintendent Michael S. Harrison as her choice for Commissioner-designate of the Baltimore Police Department.  What makes this announcement of interest to ethics and compliance experts is the innovative approach to policing ethics that Harrison, who served in the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) for 27 years and led it since 2014, implemented in the NOPD and plans to implement in Baltimore.

The approach, as developed in New Orleans, is known as Ethical Policing Is Courageous (EPIC).  At its most basic level, EPIC seeks to counteract the “bystander effect” – a common behavior in which individuals in a group setting who witness an unethical or illegal act remain silent when they see that no one else in the group is speaking or acting to address the improper act  —  with “active bystandership.”  In general terms, an active bystander, according to the MIT Active Bystander Program, “assesses a situation to determine what kind of help, if any might be appropriate” and “evaluates options and chooses a strategy for responding.”

As the Washington Post reported last week, EPIC beings with “a training program for officers that emphasized ‘active bystandership and peer intervention’” and creates an expectation

that officers should step in when a colleague is misbehaving — assaulting a citizen, lying on a report, planting evidence — and stop the bad acts before they happen or else report them. “When they see misconduct potentially about to happen,” [New Orleans] Deputy Superintendent Paul Noel said, the goal is “to step in and say, ‘I got this. Back off.’” The idea is that once one bystander steps in, others often follow suit, and the peer pressure keeps the bad act from occurring.

“Active bystandership is contagious,” Noel said. “It’s hard to resist an outspoken co-worker who is intent on doing the right thing.”

New Orleans police are starting to build up anecdotes of EPIC in action. In one instance, officials said, officers had handcuffed a man after fighting, and a sheriff’s deputy from another department walked up and kicked the man in the face. “We don’t roll like that anymore,” one of the officers told the deputy, and then they arrested him. “Previously, everybody would have looked the other way,” Noel said.

At a recent Fourth of July festival, a handcuffed man spit blood and saliva in an officer’s face. “The officer was about to respond,” Noel said. “Then he thought about the EPIC program and walked away.” Trainers in the program use spitting in role-playing as a way of persuading officers not to respond with force that can ultimately harm the officer as well as the spitter.

Four elements of the EPIC program that the Post article identified appear to have enhanced its acceptance within the NOPD:

  • Source Credibility: The NOPD, as the Post described it, “sought out officers who were respected among the rank-and-file, whose support for EPIC would carry weight on the street, and recruited them to teach the program during in-service training. And the department pitched the program to union leaders as a way for officers to avoid disciplinary problems by not getting reported in the first place.”
  • “Tone from the Top”: The EPIC program began by training the top NOPD commanders first, including Harrison.
  • Individual Public Commitment to Program: NOPD officers “now wear an EPIC pin on their lapels, declaring their commitment to acting ethically and reporting any misbehavior they see.”
  • Positive Reinforcement of Ethical Behavior: “Body-camera footage of incidents where officers have intervened to stop bad actions is used in training sessions, and officers who successfully intervene are honored, Harrison said.”

Although NOPD commanders acknowledged that the success of EPIC is difficult to measure, citizen complaints about the NOPD have reportedly decreased substantially, from 850 in 2016 to 734 in both 2017 and 2018, and citizen satisfaction with the police has increased.

Note: The challenges that Harrison will face in implementing EPIC within the Baltimore Police Department are likely to be formidable.  As a Baltimore Sun article recently noted,

Baltimore is the most murderous big city in the United States. The police department has been exposed as a hot bed of corruption, where a recent federal investigation brought down a unit of detectives who stole and resold drugs on the street, among other crimes. The city’s consent decree was put in place in 2017 after U.S. Justice Department investigators determined Baltimore police had engaged for years in unconstitutional and discriminatory policing.

The Baltimore Police Department operates with a half-billion dollar annual budget, but still manages to spend millions of dollars each month on overtime. Recruitment has been dismal, officer morale is poor, and crimes routinely go unsolved.

On the other hand, Harrison faced very similar challenges in improving a department that, like Baltimore’s, has had a reputation for brutality and corruption and has been under a consent decree. The fact that other cities, such as Honolulu, Albuquerque, Baton Rouge, and St. Paul (MN) are adopting the EPIC approach suggests that EPIC is an approach suitable for policing in every city and state.

For that matter, corporate ethics and compliance officers should look more closely at the EPIC approach and consider incorporating elements of the EPIC program into their own compliance programs.  A generic “speak up” corporate policy, or ethics hotline with state-of-the-art technology, will accomplish little if executive and employees at all levels are skeptical that C-level executives truly welcome and reward ethically-based actions.   On the other hand, if employees see that those same C-level executives not only attend ethics training but speak out within the company to foster an active bystander culture, and prominently recognize and reward employees whose actions demonstrate active bystandership, the more likely that the company’s ethics program will improve its credibility and effectiveness over time.

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