The Denton Police Department will be one of the first agencies in the U.S. to roll out a new training program that aims to reduce unnecessary harms between officers and civilians, coming later this month.
The Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement Program, or ABLE, is an eight-hour training program developed by Georgetown University’s Innovative Policing Program that encourages officers to intervene in situations where their peers may be causing harm.
Georgetown selected DPD to participate in some of the program’s first training sessions along with 34 other departments across the nation and with larger cities like Boston and Philadelphia.
Before the program can be taught to all of DPD, several instructors from the department will attend Train the Trainer events over Zoom with other participating departments from Oct. 28 to Nov. 2 to learn the curriculum from Georgetown Law.
“Train the Trainer is going to consist of four days of training, where our instructors will participate in scenarios involving situations that could escalate, and learn how to intervene before they escalate,” Richard Williams, the accreditation and compliance director for DPD, said. “It will be real-life, scenario-based training with practical exercise.”
Newly certified ABLE instructors will then teach what they learn to the rest of the department, and then to departments outside Denton.
The curriculum will incorporate group discussions, some lectures and role-playing to demonstrate what active bystandership could look like in practice for officers. Jonathan Aronie, the chair for ABLE’s board of advisors, said ABLE is meant to prevent situations like when Minneapolis police stood by as officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd in May.
“[ABLE] isn’t about that small group of bad cops,” Aronie said. “This is about the huge group of good cops who would like to be a bystander if they only knew how to do it successfully. We all fail to intervene at some point. It’s a problem with humanity. This isn’t a course about police. It’s a course about humanity.”
Williams said Denton Police Chief Frank Dixon expressed interest in the ABLE program earlier this year after attending a policing conference in New Orleans, the first city to help develop ABLE.
“The chief is constantly focused on continuous improvement within our department,” Williams said. “He feels that this is a win-win for our department. It’s something that will help us to provide the best service that we can to our citizens, and to continue to build confidence and maintain that level of community support that we have with our community.”
The addition of ABLE to DPD’s training regiment represents one of the several reforms Denton police have instituted since the city established an ad-hoc committee in June of citizens and leaders to examine police use of force.
Eligibility for the ABLE Program requires continuous community involvement from police and citizens as part of the program’s contract pledge with participating departments. Rev. Cedric Chambers, the Denton use-of-force committee co-chair, endorsed the ABLE program as a tool for Denton police to build that community trust.
“I think Denton Police is doing a better job at being visible in the community so that community can see you’re dealing with a totally different department,” Chambers said. “[Chief Dixon] is getting officers out in the community, so that people can see them less as a uniform and more as a human.”
The committee recommended other reforms like employing mental health professionals to respond to emergencies but did not vote to change any of DPD’s use-of-force guidelines.
Chambers said he is satisfied with the work the ad-hoc committee has done examining DPD’s policies, but acknowledged that some community members may continue to see police in a negative way despite new reforms like ABLE.
“I’m quite sure not everybody in the community feels comfortable with the police,” Chambers said. “They’re not supposed to, because we are dying at their hand.”
The tense relationship between police and community members, especially people of color, has led to increased calls for police disinvestment and abolition from groups like the North Texas chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.
Priscilla Yeverino, a volunteer with DSA North Texas, said continuous reforms are a Band-Aid to the “gaping wound” of historical police violence.
“At the end of the day, a cop’s job is still to remove that homeless person from a bench,” Yeverino said. “It’s still to give a citation to somebody for jaywalking or what have you. They enforce the law, so no matter what progressive, PR facade the chief is trying to communicate to us, we know the truth […] The fact that they still have to enforce the laws doesn’t make me feel any safer.”
Yeverino, a current UNT public administration graduate student, said the Darius Tarver shooting demonstrates one of the multiple reasons people of color in Denton might distrust police. Efforts like ABLE to reform police tactics or culture, she said, may be a futile effort.
“What happened to George Floyd was the perfect example of every police department in America,” Yeverino said.
Despite criticism of police culture and increased nationwide calls for police abolition, the architects of ABLE maintain that active bystandership will still be necessary for hierarchical groups, Aronie said.
“Trying to empower lower-ranking officers to correct their captain has been hard,” Aronie said. “No matter how much you try to impose new things on any group from the outside, those groups often try to resist it, and we’ve seen that for decades in the United States with policing. Here is a program that police support every bit as much as the community.”
Featured Image: Denton Police Department joins the Active Bystandarship for Law Enforcement (ABLE) Project to create a training program. Image by Quincy Palmer