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Using courageous conversation to prevent a fellow officer’s mistakes

Giving new meaning to the words, “I’ve got your back” a teaching team at ILEETA 2010 gave tips addressing the traditional law enforcement taboo about “interfering” with another officer’s handling of a situation

With two provocative remarks at the most recent ILEETA conference, the Kansas City teaching team of Huth and Colwell cut to the heart of a training issue that’s drawing increasing discussion these days.

“I’ve never met an officer who wouldn’t take a bullet for another officer, but cops won’t have a ‘courageous conversation’ with another officer over an act that could be a career-ender.”
— Charles “Chip” Huth

“Law enforcement is a very brave culture as it operates in the outer environment, but a very cowardly one as it operates from within. It takes courage to do what’s right even when members of your culture group disagree.”
— Jack Colwell

Exactly what should you say or do when you see a fellow officer — even one who out ranks you — making unwise tactical decisions or careening toward unreasonable use of force or other inappropriate conduct?

And given the traditional law enforcement taboo about “interfering” with another officer’s handling of a situation, how do you get motivated to take action?

To PoliceOne instructor Gary Klugiewicz, intervention is a basic officer-survival tactic. “Think of it as another aspect of ‘I’ve got your back,’ ” he suggests. “Interceding to stop another officer’s poorly conceived or reckless action can have profound physical and legal implications for both of you. You’re protecting him from his own bad decision-making, and if he’s doing something that could also get you killed or sued, you’re protecting yourself as well.”

In an effort to win broader acceptance of the concept in the police culture, Klugiewicz and Dr. George Thompson of Verbal Judo fame have developed hands-on content on what they call “ethical intervention” as part of a course they teach in Tactical Communications. And Huth and Colwell expand on essentially the same theme, which they label “courageous communication,” in a new book they’ve co-authored, Unleashing the Power of Unconditional Respect: Transforming Law Enforcement and Police Training.

The Problem Defined
What those trainers are talking about are situations in which a fellow LEO doesn’t see or doesn’t care that he is on a crash-and-burn course of action and needs to be stopped now. What responsibility should you assume?

Example: You’re among responders to an EDP who’s threatening suicide while teetering on a building ledge 10 feet above a concrete sidewalk, jabbing at officers below with a long fluorescent light bulb. He ignores verbal commands. A lieutenant decides that the best response is to Taser him and orders an officer to do so. You know that department guidelines prohibit the use of a conducted energy weapon “where the subject may fall from an elevated surface.” There is no inflatable landing bag in place. A plunge from that height onto concrete could certainly prove fatal.

Or: After an exhausting foot chase, you and other officers have just captured a suspect who shot and wounded another officer. He’s handcuffed and on the ground but is blatantly ignoring his right to remain silent. Taunts, epithets, insults — contempt of cop spews from his flapping lips. Your partner takes the bait, lets fly a flame-thrower of profanity, and shifts his weight to cock his boot back. Curbstone justice — and a shit-storm over excessive force — coming up….

“We all have bad days — or at least bad moments — where we don’t think things through to their logical conclusion or are blinded by temper and emotions,” Klugiewicz recently told PoliceOne. “As part of our role as protectors, we have to protect each other from those bad moments. You work as a tag team. When your partner loses it, you jump in, and vice versa.

“Thoughtless or impulsive actions aren’t so easy to ignore or lie about these days. More witnesses are willing to speak up. Cameras are everywhere. Courts have ruled that if you’re present when another officer uses excessive force and you don’t intervene, you share in the liability. And all that doesn’t even take into consideration your moral obligation to do the right thing.

“There are no longer any ‘innocent’ professional bystanders. If you’re there, you’re either part of the problem or part of the solution.”

Thompson adds: “Officer safety should be thought of as encompassing career safety and legal safety as well as physical safety. When other officers are jeopardizing any of that, you need to try to think for them as they would think for themselves under better conditions. We do that for civilians all the time.”

Intervention Levels
Thompson and Klugiewicz teach three potential levels of intervention, depending on circumstances:

Low level: This is verbal. If you sense that a suspect is pushing your partner to the boiling point, for example, you might say, “Let me handle him, you back me up.”

Or if both of you are familiar with the intervention principle, a verbal code may signal that a different tack seems necessary. Klugiewicz examples: “Be careful, partner,” or “Sarge is on the radio for you” or “I can’t wait to see the video.” Or simply: “Breathe,” cueing your partner to take a couple of deep breaths and reconsider his behavioral trajectory.

Middle level: This involves physically positioning yourself between your partner and the suspect who’s provoking him. “The early interventions — middle and low — are most desirable because they can prevent physical altercations,” Klugiewicz says. “You’re still in the ‘no harm, no foul’ stage.”

High level: Here, an altercation has already erupted. You must forcibly stop your partner from striking the subject (again!) and physically separate them. If things have escalated to this point,” Klugiewicz says, “a candid report will need to be made.”

The officer you’re trying to override ideally should understand what’s happening, especially in tactical situations, Colwell points out. “You may not know everything about the situation that he knows, and if you’re misreading things he will need to respond accordingly.”

Afterward, a thorough debrief is important. Huth explains: “You have to make the other officer understand that you did what you did for him, not to him and that you expect that he will do the same for you when you need it.”

In the debrief, you establish first that your partner is okay, Klugiewicz stresses; his physical well-being of paramount. “Then you explain why you took the action you did, explore why he acted as he did, and try to learn from the experience so things will be different next time.”

In some cases — say your partner has made derogatory or inflammatory remarks to a suspect or a bystander — it may be wise to apologize to the subject for your partner’s behavior. “Angry people make beefs,” Klugiewicz explains, “and a well-timed apology can often defuse anger and prevent beefs.”

Repetitive Training
It takes more than classroom lectures to transform the principles of intervention into action in the field. “It requires repetitive skill-set training,” Colwell says.

Out of four hours spent on ethical intervention in their Tactical Communications course, Thompson and Klugiewicz devote up to two hours to physical drills. These start with simple isolation exercises so trainees get familiar with body movements that might be involved and build gradually to complex role-playing/decision-making scenarios where students are forced under pressure to come up with appropriate verbal and physical responses at all levels for intervening in volatile situations and debriefing afterward.

“It has to be imprinted on the officer’s mind that intervention works, so that reaction to real-world situations becomes reflexive,” Thompson says. “Those who come out of class believing in the concept then become mentors for others on the street.”

Culture Shift
For a pervasive shift to occur in the police culture so that intervention is accepted and trained as the “new normal,” instruction needs to begin at the academy level and be continually reinforced in-service, including at roll call. “This needs to be a standardized, universally recognized area of training so that everyone understands its importance and is very familiar with its procedures,” in the words of Chip Huth.

“It’s important to stress the standardized nature of the repetitive skill-set training here,” he adds. “It is critical that both officers in a given situation have the same concept of what intervention looks like, sounds like, and feels like. And what a contra-intervention looks like, feels like, and sounds like.”

Particularly challenging, no doubt, will be winning broad acceptance for the idea that lower-ranking officers can speak out when they perceive a superior officer making a wrong decision in a tactical situation, let’s say.

“This is difficult ground, as no command officer wants to be second-guessed,” says Jeff Chudwin, chief of the Olympia Fields (Ill.) P.D. and president of the Illinois Tactical Officers Assn. “But there are times, under high stress, when decisions may be seriously flawed and the command element cannot see the likely end result. There must be a mechanism for addressing this.

“Each of us must be willing to call the issue when it can still be changed. I liken it to range training where we ‘deputize’ every officer, whether student or instructor, to call a cease fire when they observe an unsafe condition.

“I’m not talking about creating potential ‘anarchy’ or loss of control. I see empowering all officers with the ability to draw attention and speak out immediately when a disaster is in the making as a means to gain greater control and prove that we are not wearing self-imposed blinders.”

Huth and Colwell suggest that a model might be adapted from the Crew Resource Management process airlines utilize. They also have a command-control culture, yet any crew member is authorized and urged to intervene in the actions of others to avert a calamity.

Their book, the Kansas City trainers say, “posits a courageous communication model for a cultural shift in law enforcement, from one of fear and intimidation to one where safe, open, honest communication around enduring principles of right becomes the norm. It touches everything from an occasional tactical intervention to the daily checking of the moral blind spots we all have.” The book is available at a discount at Amazon.com.

As thorny as the intervention controversy may be, Klugiewicz looks to the future with optimism. “The more professional we become as law enforcement officers, the less need there will be for overriding the behavior of other LEOs,” he says.

But Huth reminds: “Human nature and brain functionality will never eliminate the need entirely.”

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