Ervin Staub has always known the difference a bystander could make. He was born in 1938, and by the time he was six, the Nazis were deporting 440,000 of his fellow Hungarian Jews to death camps.
“There were important bystanders in my life who showed me that people don’t have to be passive in the face of evil,” he explained ahead of a conference at the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh scheduled for September. A Christian woman risked her own life to shelter Staub and his younger sister. His father and other family members received protective identity papers from the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, saving them from becoming one of the six million murdered Jews of Europe.
Staub survived the Nazis, then lived a decade under communism in Hungary. At 18, he fled to Vienna after the 1956 revolution, later earning his doctorate in psychology in the United States, with a focus on morality and mass violence.
Staub, 82, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has spent decades not only studying violence, genocide and reconciliation around the world and back at home in the United States, but also actively working to thwart violence before it begins. He has written a shelf of books which peel away the scaffolding that allows mass atrocities, both past and present, how to heal after genocide, and the very important impact a bystander can make.
In the 1990s, he traveled to Rwanda to help mediate discussions between the Hutu and the Tutsis, and mend the deep wounds of the country’s bloody civil war and genocide. After film director Theo van Gogh was assassinated in 2004 by a suspected Islamic terrorist in Amsterdam, the government of the Netherlands asked Staub to develop a program to improve Dutch-Muslim relations. And, for decades, Staub has focused part of his research on improving the fraught, often violent, relationship between America’s law enforcement and the public. Now, after the killing of George Floyd in police custody, Staub’s ideas are once again getting greater examination. Several cities are exploring training programs built upon Staub’s idea of ethical policing, and creating good actors out of passive bystanders.
Staub’s focus on shifting policing in America began nearly 30 years ago, with the brutal beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers in 1991. King’s treatment at the hands of police triggered mass protests. The city of Los Angeles put together a commission charged with “a full and fair examination of the structure and operation of the LAPD.” Known as the Christopher Commission, after attorney Warren Christopher (the very same who later became President Bill Clinton’s secretary of state), the commission found repetitive “use of excessive force,” among police. “We recommend a new standard of accountability,” they wrote.”Ugly incidents will not diminish until ranking officers know they will be held responsible for what happens in their sector, whether or not they personally participate.”
The commission turned to Staub to create a program for California’s police departments in an attempt to help not only heal the schism between the public and the police, but also encourage active intervention rather than bystanderism. Staub mapped his work looking at bystander passivity from World War II to modern day American policing, to try and prevent another King incident from happening again. “You have to shift the mindset, so officers realize that if they remain passive as bystanders, they are responsible for what their fellow officers do,” he told The New York Times in 1993. The paper called him an “activist research psychologist.”
But the program didn’t take off, and Staub says interest in formalizing his training program languished.
Six years ago, Mary Howell, a civil rights lawyer from New Orleans, who had a long career advocating for victims of police brutality, turned to Staub’s ideas hoping they would help her own city.
“We had gone through periods of intense crisis and reforms, which have failed in cycles,” Howell said, referring to the time before Staub. “It’s like domestic violence – a horrible thing happens, they [the police] come with flowers and candy to say ‘We’ll fix it,’ and then it happens again.”
Staub’s research has long asked the questions: how is evil committed by normal people and how can it arise from everyday life? To stop it, people must be turned from passive into active bystanders. Staub points to an interaction in Seattle back in May, where an officer forcibly removed the leg of another officer who had put his knee on a suspect’s neck during an arrest, as an example of how engaging these programs can minimize police harms against civilians.
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