I’ve been a police officer in New Orleans for 28 years. I was here before Katrina, stayed here through the storm, and have served here since. I have lived in New Orleans my whole life, with the exception of the four years I served in the Air Force. I went to school here. I got married here. I go to church here. My wife and I raise our son here. My brother (a police officer) died here. I know New Orleans, and I know the New Orleans Police Department.
No one who has lived in New Orleans as long as I, or who has worn an NOPD uniform as long as I, questions the ongoing national (and local) demands for police reform. For several years now, my colleagues and I have worked hard to right our past wrongs. With new policies, training, structures, and personnel, we unquestionably are heading in the right direction. We still have significant work to do — and I recognize we still make mistakes — but most would agree the NOPD has come a long way since Hurricane Katrina.
One of the innovations that has served us well has been our Ethical Policing is Courageous (EPIC) peer intervention program. EPIC teaches officers how to intervene when they see potential problems so they don’t become real problems. And in the process, EPIC redefines loyalty from “I’ll protect you by covering for you” to “I’ll protect you by keeping you from causing harm in the first place.”
Our EPIC program was developed by a passionate group of NOPD officers, outside experts and community members, including local luminaries Ted Quant and Mary Howell. I have been involved in the development of EPIC from day one, and with my own eyes have seen it prevent citizen harm and save police careers.
Over the past five years, my colleagues and I have traveled across the country training other departments in the principles of EPIC and in this new way of thinking about loyalty. With the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, however, the demand for “active bystandership” training has become overwhelming. To meet this demand, the Georgetown University Law Center launched a national program called the Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement (ABLE) Project. The ABLE Project, which will provide world-class peer intervention training to police officers across the country, is modeled off EPIC. Several members of the NOPD, including me, were asked to serve on the ABLE Board of Advisors. I was honored to accept my invitation, and I look forward to helping guide the program as it pursues its bold mission of teaching the skills and tactics of active bystandership to a national audience.
I recognize our country faces a lot of problems, and policing in the United States has a long way to go to meet the legitimate demands of those we are charged with protecting. As the father of a young African American child who before long will grow up into a young African American man, these demands for reform are very personal to me. I recognize neither our EPIC program nor the national ABLE Project will solve all the problems that need solving. But my experience has shown me that EPIC should (must) be at least a part of the solution. We all — police officers, civilians, clergy, mediators, social workers, and most everyone else — benefit from the skills EPIC and ABLE teach, and the more constructive definition of loyalty they instill.
Deputy Chief John Thomas serves as the New Orleans Police Department’s Field Operations Bureau chief.