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The Holocaust survivor hoping to change American police culture

Psychologist Ervin Staub has pioneered active bystander training to limit violence between police and the public.
Ervin Staub
Ervin Staub.Courtesy Ervin Staub

Ervin Staub has always known the difference a bystander could make. He was born in 1938, and by the time he was six, the Nazis were deporting 440,000 of his fellow Hungarian Jews to death camps.

“There were important bystanders in my life who showed me that people don’t have to be passive in the face of evil,” he explained ahead of a conference at the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh scheduled for September. A Christian woman risked her own life to shelter Staub and his younger sister. His father and other family members received protective identity papers from the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, saving them from becoming one of the six million murdered Jews of Europe.

Staub survived the Nazis, then lived a decade under communism in Hungary. At 18, he fled to Vienna after the 1956 revolution, later earning his doctorate in psychology in the United States, with a focus on morality and mass violence.

Staub, 82, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has spent decades not only studying violence, genocide and reconciliation around the world and back at home in the United States, but also actively working to thwart violence before it begins. He has written a shelf of books which peel away the scaffolding that allows mass atrocities, both past and present, how to heal after genocide, and the very important impact a bystander can make.

In the 1990s, he traveled to Rwanda to help mediate discussions between the Hutu and the Tutsis, and mend the deep wounds of the country’s bloody civil war and genocide. After film director Theo van Gogh was assassinated in 2004 by a suspected Islamic terrorist in Amsterdam, the government of the Netherlands asked Staub to develop a program to improve Dutch-Muslim relations. And, for decades, Staub has focused part of his research on improving the fraught, often violent, relationship between America’s law enforcement and the public. Now, after the killing of George Floyd in police custody, Staub’s ideas are once again getting greater examination. Several cities are exploring training programs built upon Staub’s idea of ethical policing, and creating good actors out of passive bystanders.


Staub’s focus on shifting policing in America began nearly 30 years ago, with the brutal beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers in 1991. King’s treatment at the hands of police triggered mass protests. The city of Los Angeles put together a commission charged with "a full and fair examination of the structure and operation of the LAPD.” Known as the Christopher Commission, after attorney Warren Christopher (the very same who later became President Bill Clinton’s secretary of state), the commission found repetitive “use of excessive force,” among police. “We recommend a new standard of accountability,” they wrote.”Ugly incidents will not diminish until ranking officers know they will be held responsible for what happens in their sector, whether or not they personally participate.”

LOS ANGELES - Riot April 30
A riot unfolds following the Rodney King verdict in Los Angeles on April 30, 1992.Lindsay Brice / Getty Images

The commission turned to Staub to create a program for California’s police departments in an attempt to help not only heal the schism between the public and the police, but also encourage active intervention rather than bystanderism. Staub mapped his work looking at bystander passivity from World War II to modern day American policing, to try and prevent another King incident from happening again. “You have to shift the mindset, so officers realize that if they remain passive as bystanders, they are responsible for what their fellow officers do,” he told The New York Times in 1993. The paper called him an “activist research psychologist.”

But the program didn’t take off, and Staub says interest in formalizing his training program languished.

Six years ago, Mary Howell, a civil rights lawyer from New Orleans, who had a long career advocating for victims of police brutality, turned to Staub’s ideas hoping they would help her own city.

“We had gone through periods of intense crisis and reforms, which have failed in cycles,” Howell said, referring to the time before Staub. “It’s like domestic violence - a horrible thing happens, they [the police] come with flowers and candy to say ‘We’ll fix it,’ and then it happens again.”

Staub’s research has long asked the questions: how is evil committed by normal people and how can it arise from everyday life? To stop it, people must be turned from passive into active bystanders. Staub points to an interaction in Seattle back in May, where an officer forcibly removed the leg of another officer who had put his knee on a suspect’s neck during an arrest, as an example of how engaging these programs can minimize police harms against civilians.

“One of the things we aim (with the training) is change what officers see as good teamwork,” Staub explains. “Good teamwork is not to support a fellow officer in harmful behavior. Good teamwork is to prevent that officer from doing harmful things that can lead to all kinds of problems to that officer and the officers that witness it.”

That thinking, Howell thought, could help New Orleans. “Police officers will often say we’re not Black or white, we’re blue.” Howell said. “But you have to ask - what is blue? Because that’s the culture component.” Redefining “blue,” according to Howell, is one of the keys to truly reforming law enforcement and changing the culture.

The Department of Justice placed the New Orleans Police Department under a consent decree in 2013, after years of well-documented misconduct and civil rights violations, particularly against the city’s Black population. That consent decree, a 122-page federal order, called for a major overhaul of police policies -- from the way the department conducted searches and seizures, to how officers used force during arrests.

One particularly painful incident came in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, where James Brissette, 17, and Ronald Madison, 40, a mentally disabled man, both Black, were shot by police on the city’s Danziger Bridge. Another was the killing of handyman Raymond Robair, 48, a Black man, who was beaten to death by two police officers that same year.

Howell wanted to see if Staub’s work could lead to less violent outcomes. She suggested peer intervention training to the Justice Department, advocating that it be a part of the consent decree, and a new training program -- Ethical Policing Is Courageous (EPIC) -- was born. It puts the onus on the New Orleans police officers to call out misconduct before it happens, and works to change the culture of police. The training includes intensive sessions and role-plays that tackle what good police culture looks like, and the tactics on how to appropriately intervene when you see misconduct taking place - from verbal to physical interventions.

“The life of an ethical police officer in an unethical department can be very stressful,” Staub says. “[EPIC] changes police culture to define good teamwork not as supporting violence, but as stopping a fellow officer from unnecessary violence.”

Officers in New Orleans can wear pins on their lapels identifying them as having gone through the bystander training program, a signal that they are receptive to fellow officers or members of the community stopping them if they are about to engage or are engaging in misconduct. The training occurs across all ranks of police - from rookie to captain - and is an invitation for interventions without retaliation.

“A main difference in New Orleans is not in the training itself, but emphasizing the benefits to the police,” Staub explained to the Salzburg Global Seminar in 2019. “The training includes learning about what inhibits active bystandership, skills of nonaggressive interventions, how to get other bystanding officers to be allies in intervention, and other elements.”

And, by many measures, it seems to be working.

A report released by the New Orleans Police Department in 2019, around three years after EPIC was implemented, found a drop in lawsuits against police, an overall increase in citizen satisfaction with police departments, and a two-year period without a single officer-involved shooting. This was a marked improvement for a force that had long been under the microscope for unconstitutional conduct.

The makeshift memorial outside Cup Foods where George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis  police officer
People pay their respects at the makeshift memorial outside Cup Foods where George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer, on May 31, 2020 in Minneapolis.Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images file

Howell says the emphasis on harm prevention is what makes the program so successful, in addition to body cameras being introduced around the same time. She speculates that had Minneapolis implemented a bystander program like EPIC, the officers on the beat the day George Floyd was taken into custody, and killed, might have intervened when then-officer Derek Chauvin engaged in the fatal maneuver that killed Floyd.

Michelle Gross, president of Communities United Against Police Brutality in Minneapolis, has looked at police issues in the state for over 30 years. She agrees that a cultural change that could come about with this type of bystander training program is paramount. “It's creating a culture in which intervention is not only acceptable but encouraged,” Gross argues.

Interest in Staub’s ideas are coming in from across the country.

A new initiative launched after Floyd’s death from Georgetown University will offer free EPIC programming to police departments. The Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement (ABLE), will act as a national hub for EPIC training, technical assistance and research. The aim is to overhaul police culture, where officers routinely intervene as necessary to prevent misconduct, avoid police mistakes, and promote officer health and wellness. Christy Lopez, a former Deputy Chief in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division who is on the board of the Georgetown initiative, explains that an initial $250,000 funding grant is being bolstered by staff members who are giving their time pro bono. They are hopeful additional funding can be raised to allow the training to continue indefinitely. Staub will speak at their fall conference.

The unveiling of artist Kenny Altidor's memorial portrait of George Floyd on the wall of a CTown Supermarket on July 13, 2020 in Brooklyn, New York.Angela Weiss / AFP - Getty Images

After Floyd’s killing, Georgetown and the New Orleans Police Department received more than 100 telephone calls from police agencies asking for ABLE training - including law enforcement in Texas, California and Ohio attorney Jonathan Aronie, the chair of the ABLE board of advisers, says. The Baltimore Police Department is also poised to release its own version of ABLE training this month. Philadelphia is also due to implement ABLE, according to its department’s commissioner Danielle Outlaw. And the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission has stated that any person who wants to become a police officer will have to have completed ABLE training this fall.

Not everyone expects instant success. Major Earl Price, a Black officer with 35 years experience who oversees training at the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office in Ohio, says it will be hard for officers to accept change. His own department will implement the ABLE program in the fall.

ABLE training puts the onus on officers to intervene before wrongdoing occurs. The very idea goes against the so-called blue wall of silence, the well-worn code of officers protecting one another at all costs, but Price thinks it will be integral to repair broken trust between law enforcement and the public. “ABLE/EPIC can make officers look at themselves in a way that we haven't had before,” Price said.

“EPIC and ABLE are a step in the right direction, without a doubt,” Sean Nicholson-Crotty, a professor at Indiana University who has studied policing, said. However, he cautions that there aren’t a lot of empirical studies looking at training efficacy, and says that evidence from his own limited studies that are currently under review suggests that training programs are only effective where the turnover is high and where the new recruits make up a higher proportion of departments.

Aronie, ABLE’s chair, is cautious not to overstate the program’s ability.

“Are we going to solve systemic racism in the U.S. this week, this month, this year? Within the next five years? We've had racism in the U.S. forever,” Aronie concedes. “But let's keep knees off necks in the meantime.”

Raoul Wallenberg
Raoul Wallenberg while serving as Sweden's special envoy in Budapest, Hungary, in 1944.Laski Diffusion / Getty Images

Staub knows there is no perfect training program. But his whole life has been in pursuit of demonstrating the power of an individual to change the outcome of the collective. After all, it’s what saved him and his sister.

“It just takes one little person standing up to evil,” he says.