Hearings reviewing the New Orleans Police Department's progress in implementing federally mandated reforms haven't always been feel-good affairs, but the judge overseeing the pact praised the force's leadership Thursday for its embrace of a program teaching officers how to talk sense to colleagues who are on the verge of moral or legal lapses.

U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan's remarks came during a hearing in which police brass walked her through the "Ethical Policing Is Courageous" — or EPIC — program they began offering in January 2016 and hope every officer eventually learns.

Utilizing methods such as training videos and role-playing scenarios developed by local officers, the EPIC program's basic goal is to teach trainees how to speak with and stop colleagues when they are tempted to run afoul of regulations — before rules or laws are broken, officials said.

Aside from teaching their curriculum to their own charges, New Orleans police brass have shared their version of the program with other forces, including those in Arlington, Texas; Memphis, Tennessee; Newark, New Jersey; and San Francisco.

"It's a credit to the New Orleans Police Department that they want to do things to make their department better as well as other departments better," said Morgan, thanking Superintendent Michael Harrison for "making it clear" that he supports the initiative.

Another program Morgan singled out as innovative was the NOPD's decision to invite Innocence Project New Orleans Director Emily Maw to speak to investigators about the importance of resisting pressure from the media or politicians to rush high-stakes criminal investigations and instead to remain committed to deliberate, thorough probes.

Maw said her message to officers drew heavily from her group's experience in freeing several wrongfully convicted prisoners.

EPIC traces its roots to social science research done on otherwise good people who have watched the Holocaust and other human rights atrocities unfold without speaking up — so-called "passive bystanders." EPIC is meant instead to teach trainees to be "active bystanders."

One training video shown in court Thursday depicted an officer firmly but genially urging a fed-up colleague to control his temper as they prepare to deal with a repeat offender who moments earlier had mocked the level-headed officer's virility.

Officials also outlined a role-playing scenario to Morgan that challenged trainees to keep in check the emotions of a partner whose temper is triggered while responding to a hypothetical domestic violence call.

NOPD Cmdr. Nicholas Gernon, who's in charge of the district that patrols the French Quarter and Central Business District, testified that the program's concepts have helped his officers safely navigate tricky exchanges with drunk, drugged or belligerent revelers during major events such as Carnival or this year's NBA All-Star Game.

Gernon estimated that nearly 80 percent of the officers who patrol Bourbon Street have undergone EPIC training.

Lead consent decree monitor Jonathan Aronie said EPIC doesn't repeal requirements to report misconduct for a police force that signed a consent decree in 2012 in a bid to correct its sometimes brutal and lax manner of operating.

Instead, he portrayed the program's lessons as tools with which officers can help their peers reduce the number of disciplinary infractions documented by higher-ups, meaning the initiative is not merely a push for cops to "snitch" on co-workers. 

Aronie — whose team has helped the NOPD unfurl the program on a pro bono basis — said EPIC should be viewed as a welcome but nonetheless voluntary supplement to the consent decree, which calls for recruit training, officer supervision and community-oriented policing reforms that haven't yet been completed.

Local civil rights attorney Mary Howell said signs so far are encouraging that EPIC will help good ideas long recognized elsewhere finally take root in the NOPD. But she said the department must ensure those principles survive changes in administration.

Thursday's hearing concluded with Morgan standing alongside Harrison as the chief gave pins to three officers who recently finished their EPIC training.

The New Orleans Police Department is using force less often and is doing a better job of inv…

Follow Ramon Antonio Vargas on Twitter, @RVargasAdvocate.

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