In December 2019, an entire class of West Virginia prison guard trainees was reportedly fired for giving the Nazi salute in their graduation photo.

The incident is not only a chilling display of a detestable symbol of genocide. It is also a crystal-clear example of the problem of the passive bystander. But modern training methods, based on current research on the science of bystandership, can help prevent such abuses before they occur. Such programs are being successfully adopted by law enforcement agencies and other organizations around the country.

What happened in West Virginia: Several news outlets have published the November graduation photo showing a class of over 30 prison guard cadets displaying the Nazi salute. According to published reports, the gesture was one cadet’s idea of a tribute to the group’s training officer. An internal investigation of the incident found that the training officer, Karrie Byrd, “saw nothing wrong with the gesture and allowed it to continue.” Several class members objected to the gesture, but went along out of fear of retaliation. Two other instructors saw the gesture and spoke out, thinking their duty to object was fulfilled. A corrections department Captain, Annette Daniels-Watts, reportedly recognized that the picture would cause the Department embarrassment, but allowed the photo to be printed and distributed with graduation materials. The Department’s subsequent internal investigation concluded that the entire class (and several of the instructors) should be fired. Acting on the recommendation, West Virginia Governor Jim Justice fired the entire class on New Year’s Eve.

Multiple opportunities to intervene: As goes the adage often attributed to Edmund Burke, the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing. We don’t know if there were any actual Nazis in the West Virginia cadet class, but it is safe to assume not all were. Many participants in the incident had opportunities to intervene, but none did. The instigator of the incident reportedly said he was honoring the instructor with the gesture. To classmates who objected, he assured them that since there was no racial motivation behind it, the gesture was acceptable. Two other instructors witnessed the gesture being made during training exercises and informed the class of the inappropriateness of the gesture. Those instructors reportedly thought their comments stopped the inappropriate behavior. Yet multiple instructors later saw the graduation photograph and did nothing to stop its publication. And the Captain in charge of cadet basic training, when shown the photograph by a secretary responsible for assembling the graduation materials, reportedly told the secretary, “oh, I should just pull it, but since you have them all already printed you might as well go ahead and stuff them into the packets.” At each of these moments, a bystander could have helped stop the activity. But the bystanders didn’t have the tools they needed to act effectively.

Inhibitors to action: Why do people fail to effectively intervene against a behavior they know is wrong? We all do it. The answer is that the tactics and strategies for successful intervention are not innate. We need to be trained to overcome factors that inhibit action in the face of bad behavior. The West Virginia investigation report concludes as follows:

  1. There is “no dispute” that the gesture and photograph were highly offensive.
  2. The investigation did not reveal any overt motivation or intent of discrimination “towards any racial, religious, or ethnic group.”
  3. Rather, the report identifies the factors behind the incident as “poor judgment, ignorance, peer pressure, and fear of reprisal.”

All the factors identified in the report are well-documented inhibitors to active bystandership. Importantly, good peer intervention techniques are proven to address such inhibitors. The program instituted by the New Orleans Police Department is one such program. The program is known as “Ethical Policing is Courageous,” or EPIC. It was implemented by the men and women of the NOPD with the support and guidance of several outside experts, including the Department’s judicially-appointed monitors, Jonathan S. Aronie and David L. Douglass. Both are members of the Sheppard Mullin Organizational Integrity Group. Since then, the EPIC program has been brought to other municipal police departments, and at least one university police department.

In law enforcement organizations, one of the main inhibitors to intervention is peer pressure, particularly when officers fear ostracism or retaliation from fellow officers. This effect is sometimes referred to as the “blue wall of silence.” That wall of silence is rooted in the value of protecting fellow officers from harm, but becomes pernicious when it suppresses intervention against bad acts.

Some corrective actions may miss the mark. According to some reports, West Virginia plans to begin training its corrections department staff about the Holocaust as a result of the cadet graduation photo incident. Surely a better understanding of the Holocaust would help the cadets see that the Nazi gesture is offensive. But it might not be a complete solution. It doesn’t address the inhibitors to intervention that are present in all such situations, and which are especially pervasive in law enforcement environments.

Active bystandership makes us all better. Good peer intervention training programs work precisely because they can break the wall of silence. For example, the EPIC program ties positive, early intervention to the value of protecting fellow officers. Instead of relying on ethics training, discipline, or negative reinforcement, the program emphasizes that stepping in to prevent misconduct can help save a fellow officer’s life, safety, or career. Intervention skills are taught as a learnable skill, on the same level as learning to operate the radio, use a firearm, or apply handcuffs. When active intervention skills become pervasive, problems can be prevented before a crisis occurs. The EPIC program has garnered positive reviews from many quarters.

The West Virginia government has rightly been praised for its transparent and thorough response to this incident, but crisis management is difficult and traumatic. If objectionable behavior can be stopped earlier, the need for an expensive crisis response can be avoided. More importantly, officers can learn to be better through the intervention of a peer. Aronie reports that “many officers will recount with gratitude” throughout their careers the story of a partner or sergeant who prevented a mistake or misconduct through active and early intervention.

Peer intervention can help prevent officer misconduct, but it can also have other positive effects, including to increase the effectiveness of enforcement methods, improve officer and inmate safety, increase community engagement, and prevent excessive use of force. There are some indications that it may also help reduce officer suicides. More broadly, active bystandership has the potential to make us all better in the face of evil. Ervin Staub is a prominent scholar of the psychology of peace and violence. In the preface to his book on bystander intervention, The Roots of Goodness and Resistance to Evil, Staub recounts stories of bystanders who resisted the Nazi persecution of Jews during WWII. In some cases, resistance changed the behavior of the perpetrators, and lives were saved. Among the lives saved were those of Staub and his family, who were protected by Christian bystanders in Hungary in the summer of 1944.

In the end, not all offensive conduct can be stopped. But we can do better with proper awareness, and we will be better for it. The West Virginia incident provides an excellent example of how better intervention could have helped a whole community. As New Orleans civil rights attorney Mary Howell has said, Staub’s work on peer intervention challenges us “to think about how to be better people and how to not be silent.”