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Lyme-Old Lyme group hosts panel discussion on officers policing themselves

Who's policing the police?

Proponents of a Georgetown Law Center program are hoping, on some level, that the police are. 

On Sunday the Lyme-Old Lyme Partnership for Social Justice and the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme sponsored a virtual conversation centered on how the Georgetown Law Center’s Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement (ABLE) program can improve police department cultures. 

The free Zoom event featured seven panelists including ABLE project leaders and law enforcement personnel. The ABLE program was developed by Dr. Ervin Staub of the University of Massachusetts along with activists, police and academics, as training for police in an attempt to reduce misconduct and harmful behavior.

Old Lyme Resident State Trooper Matt Weber said Congregational church Rev. Steve Jungkeit brought ABLE to his attention. 

“Looking into it, I was grateful that there was a program like this out there where we could work together with different community leaders,” Weber said. “We are here to have a conversation with the community, my department likes to be transparent so we’re open to discussion for anything.”

He said he started to bring ABLE into the department and different state agencies.

Jungkeit said he was searching for ways to channel his outrage after the death of George Floyd during an arrest by Minneapolis police. He reached out to Mary Howell, a friend and civil rights attorney in New Orleans who has successfully sued police there on different occasions. Howell suggested that Jungkeit learn about ABLE via a virtual open house. He attended the open house this past summer and was surprised to discover that Howell and members of the New Orleans Police Department were not only on speaking terms but had developed a fondness for one another. He was encouraged also by seeing activists and police working in tandem.

Jungkeit said he thinks Old Lyme should be one of the many “institutions and towns and cities that know about the program and partner with local law enforcement.”

Jonathan Aronie, who is on the ABLE Project Board of Advisors, described Sunday what exactly the program seeks to do.

“It’s a program that teaches police officers practical skills and tactics to intervene in another officer’s conduct to prevent harm,” he said. “I know it sounds very simple, but if we look all around the world in every profession out there, intervening is hard. Yet for decades in this country we thought we could teach intervention by demanding intervention. … That has not worked. Never has policing, until now, decided to train in the skills and tactics of intervention.” 

Aronie also touched on how ABLE is supported by groups that normally disagree. 

“We held a conference in New Orleans that John Thomas was a key speaker at, and Dr. Ervin Staub, one of the famous psychologists who helped us create this and write the curriculum, and our first conference was sponsored by the Fraternal Order of Police and the Southern Poverty Law Center,” he said. “For those of you who don’t know, those two organizations have never supported the same event in their histories as far as I know.” 

Weber said he started to bring ABLE into Old Lyme's department. At first it seemed “too good to be true” especially because it was offered for free, but Weber and another officer took the course.

“If there’s something I can do to intervene to help another officer from making a huge mistake that’s going to have a snowball effect and trickle down, it’s going to affect his personal life, family life, work life ... all you have to do is intervene,” he said.

Weber added that he plans on bringing what he learned from ABLE to the 10 auxiliary officers that the town hires for the summer. He said he thinks area school systems can also use a lot of the ABLE models especially among certain groups of students who repeatedly have the same issues.

Weber explained the issues Old Lyme police or other departments may have when trying to implement ABLE programming. 

“The biggest obstacle is the fear of unknowns. What is ABLE, is ABLE something that’s going to attack our culture, tell us how bad we are, be negative? That’s what I was initially worried about, but it’s the complete 180 of that, nothing but positive has come out of this,” he said. “Nothing but positive for the agency, and it’s nothing but positive for the community. I think the advertising campaign would be one of the biggest issues.”

Three of Sunday's panelists were police officers who had worked in internal affairs, the unit responsible for investigating allegations of misconduct and policy violation by officers. 

Greg Hanna Jr., recently retired from the Metro Transit Police in Washington, D.C., and currently an ABLE instructor, said during his time in internal affairs, he saw how many incidents could have been prevented by other officers becoming active bystanders.

John Thomas, deputy field of field operations for the New Orleans Police Department, added that working in internal affairs seems to have these group of officers gravitate to ABLE.

“We’ve seen a lot of things over our time that could’ve been prevented,” he said. 

Deirdre Jones, the acting deputy chief of the Cleveland Division of Police, said after the death of George Floyd, she knew officers needed some kind of additional training.

The fact that several officers stood by and did not intervene while onlookers pleaded for former police officer Derek Chauvin to release Floyd from the ground, galvanized many of the panelists.

ABLE became an appropriate outlet, praised by activists and authorities alike, according to Aronie. Panelists said that ABLE is not a cure-all but it gets at one of the many compounding issues in police brutality — department culture.

Multiple panelists who are ABLE instructors took the opportunity to lead educational scenarios Sunday night.

Hanna described a situation where an inexperienced younger officer, played by Jones, questions a report by a veteran officer because the more experienced officer hadn’t included a “takedown” on their report. ABLE shows officers how to navigate these typical power dynamics within their departments.

s.spinella@theday.com

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