There are many lenses through which the duty to intervene can be viewed: courts consider it law, agencies consider it policy, intellectuals consider it ethics, and modern societies consider it bystander responsibility. Regardless of the lens, officers have a legal, moral, and societal obligation to take action when observing a colleague acting with excessive force. This responsibility is embraced by officers and widely accepted as obligatory without exception. Why, then, are there still instances where hesitation prevents otherwise steadfast individuals from speaking up?
The answer is in the human brain.
Neuroscience tells us there are three cognitive roadblocks1 that can make us hesitate—or even prevent us from speaking up in critical moments:
- Ambiguity—uncertainty over policy, or expectations, or even what someone thinks they are witnessing can all cast a shadow of doubt—and doubt in the mind causes hesitation in the body. In the context of policing, there are many situations—from a late arrival to the scene, or from a poor vantage point—in which it can be difficult to tell if what is happening is reasonable and necessary. That uncertainty creates a pause within the brain of an officer who can begin to question if they are seeing things completely, or if there may be additional details they need to consider before taking action.
- Power dynamics—differences in rank can cause a person to question their authority to challenge behavior. Fear of retaliation—or of being labeled a bad teammate in a tight-knit group—can cause hesitation in anyone dealing with a difficult situation. The need for career stability and to not ‘rock the boat’ can make people pause to consider the potential consequences to their future. In law enforcement, the presence of hierarchy can be a powerful influencer in decision making, and can make an officer question if they should speak out against authority, or if they have the authority to speak out.
- Social threat—the brain processes social threat similarly to how it understands physical threat, and can cause the same prefrontal cortex response of fight-flight-freeze. Depending on the situation and how it is handled, the potential exists to further escalate a situation in a continuum of impact on our threat activators. In a moment of crisis—if not handled correctly,—a single attempt to challenge behavior has the potential to raise everyone’s threat level and add fuel to a situation that is already ablaze.
Officers who understand, recognize, and prepare for these challenges will be better equipped to assess and manage critical interventions effectively.
As with every other actionable officer task, simply stating the requirement for action does not create proficiency. The action of challenging misconduct is a trainable skill that requires understanding, rehearsal, and maintenance so that the officer is comfortable recalling that skill with the natural response of an innate reflex. Just like weapons training, peer intervention is a perishable skill that must be practiced to stay fresh.
MILO Range has created content designed to assist police agencies in addressing the criticality—and the challenges—of speaking up against misconduct. These carefully-crafted and professionally-vetted scenarios place officers in uncomfortable situations, where they are forced to recognize and take action if they observe a fellow officer behaving unethically or violating civil rights. Using simulations to re-enforce agency duty-to-intervene policies ensures there is no ambiguity, and allows officers to rehearse and become comfortable with one of the most challenging parts of their responsibilities. Practicing difficult scenarios in a safe and productive learner-centric environment creates cognitive habits the officers can then retrieve in moments of crisis.
As with many training opportunities, true learning happens in the debrief. Following the scenarios, officers can engage in important discussions with their partners and superiors over the most effective methods for de-escalation when the conflict is within their own ranks. Participation as a team, with multiple layers within the hierarchy, can reduce the asymmetrical power concern by demonstrating equal understanding and acceptance of the obligation.
“Officers need to see that they can have a significant positive impact if they approach difficult situations with trained expertise,” explains Robert McCue, General Manager of MILO Range Training Systems. “Knowing that their peers are also going through this training will help reduce the social threat, removing any concerns they may have about having the support of their team.”
Brian Brooks, a 25-year police veteran and former Deputy Director of the WY Law Enforcement Academy provided subject-matter-expert collaboration on MILO’s duty-to-intervene content. “There are multiple factors that can deplete an officer’s cognitive ability in crisis,” explained Brian. “Focused attention to other issues on the scene, lack of exposure to this type of scenario leaving them unsure how to handle it, hesitation to question others/authority, physical fatigue during a chase, emotionally charged incidents, and overwhelming acts that shock the officer’s conscience. That’s why this training is so important—it cracks the door open to issues that have rarely been addressed in typical use-of-force training.”
This content, included with over 1000 other multi-branching scenarios, is not available in CGI or avatar-based technology because filming real actors in Ultra HD engages the necessary emotional response required for an impactful learning event. “Providing this material in an intense but controlled learning environment is completely different from watching bodycam or cell phone footage of police brutality,” describes Dr. Joy VerPlanck, MILO’s Director of Research. “With multiple ways the scenes can progress, officers can directly experience the results of their action—or inaction—which triggers the emotional response required to create a learned habit.”
Prior to release, the material was screened and vetted by an advisory team which included principals at The Initiative: Advancing the Blue and Black Partnership. “We are proud to endorse the intervention training offered by MILO Range,” explains Nadine Jones, Executive Director of The Initiative. “Intervention takes courage. Intervention takes effort. Intervention is hard. But Intervention is necessary because failing to intervene undermines the integrity of our law enforcement officers everywhere. The MILO approach is grounded in the principles of NLI’s brain science, which will support more effective community-oriented policing—this is good for police and good for communities.”
 Simpson, M., Ray, J., Grant, H., Smith, K., Rocks, D. and Weiss, M. (2019). The Science of Speaking Up. NeuroLeadership Journal, v8.