As a Holocaust survivor, Dr Ervin Staub’s life was largely influenced by violence. Today, as an expert on the subject, he emphasises the role of bystanders, which has become a central element of training programmes for police forces in the United States.
As BBC writes, Ervin Staub was six years old when the Nazi troops arrived in Hungary in 1944, but luckily, he and his family did manage to survive: it was thanks to a certain Maria Gogan, who would become the second mother to the young boy and his sister. The other key figure in his survival was Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who saved some 20,000 Jews by giving them fake passports during the Holocaust.
Even though Dr Staub did live to see the end of Nazi rule, he fled to the United States shortly afterwards, to study the psychology of violence, genocide, and morality. He was a PhD student at Stanford University and a professor at Harvard, and later he even founded a PhD course on the psychology of violence at the University of Massachusetts.
He was also involved in a number of humanitarian projects, such as the reconciliation after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, but as BBC writes, “it’s not genocide that [worried him, it’s] the excessive use of force by police officers in the US”.
And for his research on the subject, Dr Staub took inspiration from the heroes who had saved his own life: Maria Gogan and Raoul Wallenberg. He started referring to them as “active bystanders”, people who put themselves into danger in order to help others. As BBC writes,
“For his theories on harm prevention, Dr Staub was seen as a cult figure in police-reform circles.”
In one of his works, also published by the New York Times, he designed a training programme for police forces in California. It was commissioned after the case of Rodney King, who got beaten by Los Angeles police officers in 1991.
Dr Staub: “Individuals can make a huge difference”
Today, Dr Staub is planning his retirement, but current events involving the US police – the George Floyd case, to name one example – are proof that his ideas lost nothing of their importance today.
These events have triggered the launch of courses on ethical policing at more than 30 police departments in the US, and by holding Zoom conferences on the subject, Dr Staub is an active participant himself.
Some examples where Dr Staub’s principles are employed are the training Ethical Policing is Courageous (EPIC), first introduced by the police force in Louisiana city, New Orleans in 2014 – in large part inspired by Staub’s paper mentioned above on the Rodney King case.
Another example mentioned by BBC is The Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement (ABLE), a training project based on the principles of EPIC. Although the project still requires further funding, demand indeed is high: “After the George Floyd killing we probably received 100 calls from police departments wanting EPIC training” – says a board member at ABLE.
These courses all have an emphasis on the responsibility of bystanders, who play an important role in controlling their partner’s behaviour if they themselves fail to do so.
And to see how effective these training have been, survey results on the New Orleans Police Department have shown that not only did the number of incidents involving the police force fall between 2012 and 2018, satisfaction with the department too increased from 21% in 2009 to 54% by 2019.