KNOXVILLE (WATE) — In one of his first actions as the Knoxville Police Department’s new Chief of Police, Paul Noel submitted an application for KPD to join the Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement (ABLE) Project.

“The ABLE project launched in the spring of 2020,” said the ABLE Project’s Director, Lisa A. Kurtz. “ABLE is really about bringing a culture of active bystandership to agencies. We accomplish this through a series of standards that all agencies must agree to. Of course, that includes robust training in the skills and tactics of active bystandership, but also really focuses on creating a culture where officers feel comfortable intervening and accepting interventions to prevent or stop harm.”

The ABLE Project grew out of the Ethical Policing Is Courageous (EPIC) Peer Intervention Program developed by the New Orleans Police Department. That’s where Chief Noel spent more than 25 years. Noel received the Gary Hayes Award in 2021 for his role in designing and teaching the ABLE and EPIC programs.

“What we do in the training is we give officers the theoretical framework for understanding why active bystandership is important. Why it is really difficult to intervene even when you’re in a profession where you are running towards danger all the time, why it is difficult to intervene specifically with your peers, your co-workers, potentially even your supervisor,” Kurtz said. “We do give officers concrete skills and tactics and mental frameworks that they can use. We have them practice intervening in scenarios that we know officers tend to run into on a regular basis.”

Kurtz provided a specific example of where ABLE training would come into play.

“A female sergeant reached out to me, to let me know that she was in a situation where she came upon a group of all-male officers from a neighboring agency. So, they were outside of her agency. She said, in the past, she would have looked at what they were doing, which she felt was inappropriately engaging with a subject whom they had handcuffed, who they were treating physically in a way that she didn’t think was warranted. And she said in the past she would have looked at that and said ,’I think that’s wrong, but it’s not my agency, you know, there are four guys here what am I going to do,'” Kurtz said. “But after having had the ABLE training it sparked for her that it was her responsibility and she did have an obligation to step in and stop the harm that was happening.”

“It’s about creating a culture where all officers feel responsible for the actions of their fellow officers and where they will consistently step in to prevent or stop harm where they see it happening,” Kurtz went on to say.

In order to register for the ABLE Project, KPD had to submit two letters of recommendation from community-based organizations. Both the Knoxville chapter of the NAACP and the Knoxville Area Urban League wrote letters of recommendation.

“We saw this as being a means to giving the leadership of KPD the tools necessary to train officers so that they can adequately serve or protect all communities so that no communities or individuals feel marginalized or profiled,” said Rev. Sam Brown, president of NAACP Knoxville Branch.

“We want to say that we are very supportive of KPD. Every citizen wants to feel as if their community is protected and that they feel safe. But also we know that the only way that’s going to happen is to support through our local law enforcement. Not support what has happened in the past but moving forward with accountability and transparency and again I’m going to emphasize peer support peer intervention peer accountability,” said Phyllis Nichols, the president of the Knoxville Area Urban League.

The ABLE team is reviewing the department’s application. If the application is accepted, officers will start training and become one of more than 250 ABLE agencies across the United States and Canada.