INVESTIGATIONS

Orlando police joined a program designed to change department culture. They got kicked out.

Brett Murphy
USA TODAY

The Orlando Police Department was among more than 200 law enforcement agencies to join a popular training program designed to improve police culture and prevent misconduct.

Last month, Orlando became the first department to get kicked out of the program, developed by Georgetown Law's Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement, or ABLE, project. The program’s officials took the extraordinary step after Orlando police leaders revoked a lieutenant's teaching privileges because he reported concerns that other instructors changed the courses without permission. 

The department’s decision to discipline that lieutenant – who has not been identified – was the exact kind of reaction the ABLE training is meant to discourage, Georgetown officials said. “We have no tolerance for retaliation in response to an intervention,” Lisa Kurtz, the project director, wrote in a letter to Orlando Police Chief Orlando Rolón in early February, informing him that his department had been ousted. 

The director of the ABLE project informed Orlando Police Chief Orlando Rolon that his department was expelled.

“It's not something any of us wanted to do,” Kurtz told USA TODAY in an interview.

The case in Orlando, which was first reported by WFTV, demonstrates how reform efforts can struggle to reverse decades of police culture. 

In a series of investigations last year, USA TODAY documented the extent of law enforcement’s code of silence and its impact on individual officers who reported colleagues’ misconduct. Reporters found an unofficial system of retaliation in departments large and small. 

Police leaders routinely protect those accused of wrongdoing and punish the officer who accused them. They often condone reprisals or pile on by launching internal investigations to discredit those who expose misconduct, USA TODAY found. Whistleblowers have been disciplined, fired and even jailed after speaking out against fellow officers. 

Experts said bystander intervention programs are a solution that directly addresses the institutional problems USA TODAY identified. The ABLE training teaches officers how to step in to prevent excessive force or other misconduct in the moment, so whistleblowers don’t need to come forward later. 

In a statement to USA TODAY, Rolón said he was surprised that ABLE officials kicked his department out. He said he supports the bystander intervention principles, many of which were already taught in Orlando. 

“We believe in the value and benefit of those for law enforcement and our local community,” Rolón said.

He said he stands by the decision to remove the lieutenant who reported the issues because that officer had the responsibility to immediately correct the other instructors but chose not to. “We are disappointed that did not occur,” Rolón said. 

A national movement

Bystander intervention policies are not new, but when and how they are followed became an urgent national concern after three Minneapolis police officers stood by and watched while Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd in May 2020. The officers’ statements afterward tried to justify Chauvin’s actions. Video that contradicted their accounts sparked international outcry, mass protests and criminal charges against Chauvin and the other officers.

People occupy an intersection  June 1, 2020, where George Floyd died in police custody in Minneapolis the month before.

The three officers who stood by were convicted of federal crimes for failing to intervene.

After Floyd died, a group of attorneys at Georgetown and the firm Sheppard Mullin launched the ABLE project, which is free for virtually all departments. Since the project's first cohort in September 2020, more than 121,000 officers work at ABLE-certified agencies. The program includes role-playing scenarios, eight hours of initial training with annual refreshers and the adoption of an anti-retaliation policy to “ensure interveners are not punished, targeted, or otherwise ostracized.”

Christy Lopez, a Georgetown Law professor and former deputy chief of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division who helps lead the ABLE program, said the policies are not enough.

“We want police to do their jobs well," Lopez told USA TODAY, "by teaching them their skills to intervene." 

ABLE is a national extension of the Ethical Policing is Courageous, or EPIC, training that started in New Orleans in 2014. Mary Howell, a civil rights attorney and one of EPIC’s architects, said a goal of the programs is to redefine loyalty "so that if an officer doesn't intervene to prevent misconduct, they are being disloyal to other officers."

The Orlando Police Department applied to ABLE in August 2020, with letters of endorsement from the mayor, two community groups and the chief. “We all, regardless of rank, have a duty to say something when we see one of our officers not having one of their best days,” Rolón said, according to local media reports

Attorney Mary Howell helped establish Ethical Policing is Courageous, or EPIC, training in an attempt to redefine loyalty among law enforcement.

During a 10-year stretch, the Orlando Police Department paid out more than $3.6 million in excessive force settlements, according to an analysis by the news channel WESH, more than double that of the neighboring Orange County Sheriff’s Office, which has almost twice as many sworn officers as the police department. 

The largest of those payouts went to an elderly World War II veteran, who suffered a broken neck after an Orlando police officer slammed him to the ground outside a bar in 2010. The city cleared the officer of any wrongdoing, but a jury awarded the man $880,000. 

'It can help save lives'

After ABLE approved Orlando for the program in 2020, a group of police instructors at the department were trained in how to teach bystander intervention. 

In September 2021, one of those instructors, a lieutenant, sent an email to Kurtz with concerns that some of the other police instructors had deviated from the ABLE curriculum. As a result, the lieutenant said, portions of the training weren’t taught. 

Kurtz called a meeting with Rolón, who said the lieutenant had been removed as an instructor after sending the email. Kurtz asked the chief to reconsider that decision. “We emphasized it appeared there had been retaliation,” Kurtz told USA TODAY, “and we have no tolerance for that.” 

Kurtz sent a representative to Orlando to monitor the classes and talk with officers. The representative confirmed what the lieutenant had reported and witnessed other instructors failing to be serious about the training.

“Some of the folks who were teaching ABLE were not, let’s say, ‘champions of the program,’” Kurtz said. She declined to elaborate.

In a follow-up meeting with Rolón weeks later, the chief doubled down on his decision to remove the lieutenant and had no clear plan to fix the problems the ABLE officials identified, Kurtz said. 

She and other program leaders held several meetings before deciding to remove Orlando from the project. “We felt like at a certain point there was no choice,” Kurtz said, lamenting the fact it meant fewer officers would receive what she considers critical training.

“It can help save lives,” Kurtz said. “But it does require that culture piece. There needs to be serious buy-in from the agency.” 

ABLE officials sent a letter notifying the department of the decision, copying the mayor, as well as the two community groups that had vouched for the department when it applied. The mayor’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment. 

In interviews, leaders of the two groups, the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Institutional Church and the Christian Service Center, maintained their support for the department. 

Eric Gray, executive director of the Christian Service Center, didn’t know the circumstances of what happened but said the police department is one of the few agencies in the city that he looks forward to working with. 

“They have a very, very good reputation in this community,” he said.