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Teaching cops to disobey orders

Police officers need to follow directions from above — but what if those commands are destructive or deadly? “Active bystander” training teaches them when to break ranks.

Michael Brown/Adobe

Two police officers in Portland, Ore., approach a homeless man in a park. He is yelling erratically and alarming other people.

One of the cops, a sergeant, gets frustrated with the man’s behavior and starts to berate him. The sergeant reaches into the man’s shopping cart, throws his belongings around, and calls them “garbage.”

The second cop, a lower-ranked officer, knows that this situation must be defused. And that creates what feels like a monumental task: convincing the sergeant to stop and redirecting his focus.

Police in Portland role-play this tense scenario as part of a training program created by researchers at Georgetown University’s ABLE Project, which works with many police departments around the country. ABLE stands for Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement, and its curriculum helps officers resolve a common on-the-job dilemma: A higher-up does something immoral or gives a half-baked order, and those lower in the hierarchy have to decide how to respond.

All too often in such situations, no one speaks up or does the right thing, even when lives hang in the balance. When a gunman with an AR-15-style rifle rampaged through an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, in May, Pete Arredondo, the Uvalde schools police chief at the time, told his officers to stand back rather than rescue kids — and none disobeyed this senseless order until it was too late. In May 2020, several Minneapolis police officers stood by as officer Derek Chauvin put his knee on George Floyd’s neck. And two decades ago, US soldiers in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison followed commanders’ directives to abuse prisoners.


Incidents like these are stomach-turning, clear violations of public employees’ duty to serve and protect. But within many organizations, there’s seismic pressure not to rebel when a superior goes rogue. “You say, ‘Why didn’t somebody in there do something?’” says retired Philadelphia police officer Norman Carter, who faced blowback for reporting criminal schemes in his department. “It’s like, ‘I have to work with these other people. And if I do this, I’m going to become the outsider.’”


Compounding that pressure is the social reality, laid bare in study after study, that people shrink from confronting someone in authority — even if that person asks them to do something inhumane. “It’s easy to think about this as ‘See something, say something’ — that if you see where action is required, you should just take that action,” says Lisa Kurtz, who directs the ABLE program at Georgetown. “But what we know from more than 50 years of social science research is that that just doesn’t happen all the time.”

Hierarchies exist for good reason: They allow for coordinated action and clarify what everyone’s role should be in challenging situations. But poor guidance from high levels can defeat an organization’s entire purpose, as tragedies like Uvalde so clearly show. What organizations need to do, then, is equip recruits with a kind of empathy emergency valve, allowing them to speak up or defy orders when colleagues flout moral standards they’ve sworn to uphold.

Such training needs to help people recognize psychological weak spots so they can surmount them at key moments, says Graham Goulden, a former police officer in Scotland who founded a bystander intervention program called Cultivating Minds. But broader culture change is also crucial: Leaders across a hierarchy need to embrace, not shun, those brave enough to break protocol and act when things go horribly wrong.


‘Everybody’s going to be against you’

You may consider yourself a brave individualist, but most people have a deep-rooted desire to follow a leader. Ancestral humans thrived in tight-knit, cooperative groups, and those who didn’t get with the program weren’t just consigned to wallflower status. Being left to fend for themselves often put their lives at risk.

People’s drive to fit in can compel them to submit even to an authority that’s plainly corrupt, says Ghent University neuroscientist Emilie Caspar, who studies the twin phenomena of obedience and defiance. Some of Caspar’s studies are modeled on those of Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram, who showed in the 1960s that more than two-thirds of people followed researchers’ commands to zap others with painful shocks.

Milgram’s findings don’t seem to have become outdated. Most people are as eager to obey authority now as they were decades ago. Since Caspar began her research, she has had very few defiant subjects, and she sometimes worries the noncompliant form too small a group to study properly. In a group of more than 800 volunteers she tested, only 27 defied her orders to shock someone else. “At the experimental level, it’s very hard to have people disobeying,” Caspar says. “Milgram showed it. And I have similar issues.”

Ominously, Caspar’s latest research suggests that following commands blunts people’s emotions in ways that make real-world consequences seem distant. In one of her studies, when people obeyed orders to shock someone, they showed less activity in empathy-related brain areas than people who acted of their own accord. That suggested they had trouble feeling the shocked person’s pain, which might make it easier to justify compliance.


Peer pressure only amplifies people’s tendency to go with the program. Years of research show that the more people who watch a crime or injustice unfold, the less likely it is that any one of them will try to stop it, in part because no one else is taking any initiative.

What’s more, ethical bystanders who do act are often shamed by their colleagues, says Carter, the former Philadelphia police officer. In his early months on the force, he saw another officer driving down a cobblestone street with a woman shoved in the car trunk. Carter moved toward the officer to stop him, but someone else pulled him back. “I was adamant about reporting it to superiors,” he says. “And I was told by a veteran police officer, ‘Hey, you’ve only got six months on the job. If you take this step, everybody’s going to be against you.’” It’s easy to imagine a policeman in Minneapolis, or an Abu Ghraib soldier, fearing similar shunning as they debated whether to defy orders from above.

One of Stanley Milgram's experiments at Yale, captured in a 1968 film called "Obedience."Collection of Alexandra Milgram

Dominos of dissent

Given all the factors weighing against ethical challenges to authority — and all the horrors, from My Lai to George Floyd’s murder, that have unfolded as a result — many organizations are ramping up efforts to fill their ranks with empathetic rebels. They’re calling in training programs that give people the skills to step in when a boss does shady deals, applies illegal deadly force, or lets an active shooter roam.


The best of these programs try to cancel out psychological factors that stop people from intervening at high-stakes moments. Both Cultivating Minds and the Georgetown-based ABLE educate participants about our tendency to stand down when no one else is acting — even when decisive action means life or death. With that knowledge, people can make the conscious decision to overcome their own tendency toward passivity. “To help people intervene,” Goulden says, “we need to make them aware of the reasons why they don’t intervene.” Program leaders also encourage inductees to step forward by noting that when one person does say something, it often sets off a dissenting domino effect. “It’s really hard to be that first person,” Kurtz says. “But when you are that person, other people follow suit.”

Rehearsing gutsy action also helps people develop an empathy emergency valve. Recognizing how obedience is most people’s default mode, and how uncomfortable it feels to break ranks, ABLE puts officers through the paces of doing exactly that — as in the role-play scenario where the sergeant berates the homeless man while the junior officer looks on.

For those playing the junior officer’s part, de-escalating the situation is daunting because they have to pull rank on a higher-up. But research shows that the more people practice such tense scenarios, the more comfortable they can become acting courageously in real life. Trying out low-drama intervention techniques, such as telling the sergeant, “Hey, there’s something else I need your help with. Can you come here?” rather than “You just screwed up,” can help people feel confident using those techniques later on.

Another empathy-boosting measure involves reminding trainees of their ultimate responsibility to the public, since carrying out orders can blunt that awareness. The absolute duty to serve and protect is spelled out in ethical codes for police and the military, which tell recruits that responsibility for their actions rests with them alone and that following a corrupt superior’s lead is no excuse. When people maintain a strong sense of personal agency, they may be more apt to take decisive moral action. The more responsible that people in Caspar’s studies felt for what they were doing, the more they disobeyed direct orders to shock someone.

But ethical codes that stress personal agency won’t be worth the paper they’re printed on if they don’t have teeth. For the good of the entire organization, leaders need to support those who put duty over in-group loyalty, rather than punishing them behind the scenes and letting wrongdoers walk. “Right now,” says Carl Cavalier, a former Louisiana trooper who was fired after calling out his department’s wrongful death coverup, “we’re just not holding certain individuals accountable for their actions.”

That’s why bystander intervention programs seek to promote sweeping cultural change within organizations. Before police departments can sign on to ABLE training, leaders must vouch for their active buy-in to the program, Kurtz says. “You’re going to see very different results in an agency where you have leaders encouraging interventions, versus an agency where, ‘Oh, you intervened. You can kiss that promotion good-bye.’”

Active bystander culture is catching on to some extent. More than 250 US and Canadian police departments have signed on to the ABLE program so far, and the US military has used intervention training in a limited way to help stop sexual assaults. Those who’ve risked their careers to challenge corrupt higher-ups see promise in programs that teach people to step in. Still, some argue that individual moral role modeling, and its power to influence others, can create more principled defection than any set curriculum — and potentially help prevent the next George Floyd or Abu Ghraib scenario.

“The more of us that speak out and say, ‘This is wrong,’ it affects everybody,” says Cavalier, who is appealing his termination and hopes he’ll serve as an example of how rejecting amoral leadership can pay off in the end. “I should be able to go back to work to send a message to the guys who would like to speak out. They will say, ‘Hey, OK, he made it through. So maybe we can make it through if we just stand up.’”

Elizabeth Svoboda, a writer in San Jose, Calif., is the author of “What Makes a Hero?: The Surprising Science of Selflessness.”