Redefining use of force

The public call for police reforms in response to the death of George Floyd while being detained by four Minneapolis police officers was swift and vast. Leaders across the country listened and have begun reviewing their police departments’ use of force policies, starting with Minneapolis.

Once streets emptied of protesters, Mayor Jacob Frey and Police Chief Medaria Arradondo negotiated a policy overhaul. The new policy effective last month prohibits officers from shooting at moving vehicles, with a few exceptions, and updates language further clarifying use of force. For example, even cops unholstering a firearm can convey a threat of force, which now is considered a use of force action. These restrictions follow the city’s recent requirement that police officers document any and all de-escalation attempts, even if force was not exercised. Reports must provide all decision making events involved in an incident, including the individual’s reasoning behind those decisions.

Frey stressed to The Associated Press that the updated policy will help keep both officers and the public safe, while strengthening the department’s commitment to de escalation efforts to preserve human life.

“Upholding the sanctity of life is not just a part of this policy — it is the foundation of it. These changes represent a fundamental shift within our department and set clearer standards for community and officers as well,” Frey told reporters.

The Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis responded critically to the changes, which they said they first learned about through the media.

“It is careless to announce changes to a critical policy to the media before releasing the policy to officers — and training them — to implement the changes,” the union said in a statement. “This is another example of how the lack of training and poor political leadership hurts officers and the public.”

Over on the West Coast, the Palo Alto Police Department in Northern California collaborated with the 8 Can’t Wait campaign to amend its policy on physical restraints restricting blood flow to the brain. The department already bans chokeholds and strangleholds, but the latest version proposes adding the carotid hold to the list, which is applied to carotid arteries on the side of the neck. This broader definition has been adopted by several large law enforcement agencies, including in Miami and New York. The campaign also recommended language restricting cops from applying chest compression or other tactics that could restrict blood flow.

According to Palo Alto Online, Police Chief Robert Jonsen objects to elements of the expanded language because officers could inadvertently violat it in the midst of physical skirmishes. Another proposed change would mandate officers exhaust “all alternatives” before firing a weapon at individuals.

It does accommodate circumstances for when it’s not feasible to protect the safety of officers or the public without firing a weapon. The department requested the policy language state deadly force is lawful when law enforcement professionals “reasonably believe” it’s necessary.

Minneapolis officials say the updated policy will help keep both officers and the public safe, while strengthening the police department’s commitment to de-escalation efforts to preserve human life.

In August, Nashville Mayor John Cooper announced the formation of a commission to review use of force policies for the Metro Nashville Police Department. In a press release posted by Fox 17, the mayor stated, “Tactics such as ‘hot spot’ policing have sometimes been used too aggressively and too indis criminately, without the buyin or approval of the communities where they are used. Individual police officers did not make these policies. They did not decide to invest — or not invest — in behavioral health services, housing and education. Elected officials did. But police officers have had to deal with the consequences.”

Oregon House Bill 4301, which Governor Kate Brown was expected to sign in September, aligns state law with the U.S. Supreme Court case Tennessee v. Garner, per The Oregonian. This precedent limits police use of force to situations where circumstances deem the force “necessary to prevent the escape and the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious bodily harm to the officer or others.”

In more specific terms, officers will be allowed to engage deadly force only when it is understood to be objectively reasonable because a person poses an imminent threat of physical injury, when it’s necessary to arrest an individual or required to prevent an escape of a suspect. If signed into law, the regulation will take effect in January.

This step follows on the heel of the recently passed Oregon state law prohibiting chokeholds in most cases. Legislators included exemptions for cops and corrections officers in jails, prisons and youth detention centers under circumstances that match those when civilians are permitted to use deadly force, such as selfdefense or to protect a third person believed to be at imminent risk of harm.

These are just a few reports of purported police reforms taking place across the country. American Police Beat will continue to cover changes to use of force policies and related initiatives.

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