“Some of the police officers coming on now don’t have the same social skills as in the past. The new officers are comfortable with things like texting messages, but not so much with looking people in the eye and talking to them. These kinds of ‘little’ things are important, because these skills can help you avoid resorting to high levels of force.”
That’s Philadelphia police commissioner Charles Ramsey talking, sharing his thoughts with a “summit” of law enforcement leaders called together in Washington by the Police Executive Research Forum to discuss current issues regarding use of force.
More than 180 chiefs and other experts from academic researchers to city attorneys attended and many spoke their minds on the need and methods for de-escalating and minimizing use of force in police encounters. Last month, a 50-page summary of the day-long conference was posted online.
The lively discussion ranged from TASERs to tactics to mindset to training to disciplinary action — and more. Here are representative highlights of what these decision-makers said. See if you agree or disagree with their view of your world.
Ignore Training… Get Suspended
“The vast majority of improper uses of force, especially deadly force, are a direct or indirect result of officers abandoning the tactics that we spent a lot of time and money training them on. Officers endanger themselves as well as the public when they abandon their tactics [and] we need to hold officers accountable.
“What I’ve done is develop a discipline matrix that says that if you abandon your tactics and you’re involved in a critical incident, you will be indefinitely suspended, which is the equivalent of being fired.
“Where an officer uses a TASER on someone who is handcuffed and running away [for example], we need to ask how fit these officers are for duty. Instead of using a TASER, an officer should be able to catch up to that person. I just suspended an officer for five days for using a TASER against a handcuffed person.”
— Chief Art Acevedo, Austin (Texas) PD
Training Needs to Match Officers’ Concerns
“Sometimes training has been prompted by a lawsuit or championed by an advocacy organization, and fails to adequately address…recent trends and pressing issues that are on the minds of police officers working in the field.
“For example, the fact that 71 officers were shot and killed last year and shooting ambushes of police have increased is what’s on the minds of officers today. Police training must recognize such dangers…. Those concerns are going to affect how [officers] use their skills, as well as their capacity to deescalate and minimize use of force.”
— Joshua Ederheimer, Principal deputy director, Community Oriented Policing Services Office, DOJ
Trainers at All OIS Scenes
“Our training unit responds to every officer-involved shooting. They’re part of the initial walk-through, and they’re part of the review that we conduct on every officer-involved shooting. The training commander also reviews use-or-force reports completed by a supervisor. So they know what types of incidents are occurring out there, and they’re better equipped to put together the types of training that we need.”
— Chief Jerry Dyer, Fresno (Calif.) PD
OC, TASERs, and Noncompliance
“I don’t think that pepper spray or a TASER is the proper response to...persons who simply refuse to comply with a police officer’s order. There have got to be other skills that we teach our officers…before they make that jump.”
— Chief Chris Burbank, Salt Lake City PD
Report Every TASER Draw
“…every time an officer unholsters the TASER, a use-of-force form should be filled out. We’re finding that the vast majority of times, all the officer has to do is touch the Taser, and the average citizen looks at it, knows what it is, realizes where this is going, and they comply.”
— Chief James Cervera, Virginia Beach (Va.) PD
Slow Things Down
“If [a] sergeant is on the air and gets to [a high-risk] call within 15 minutes, the chance of it resulting in an officer-involved shooting or a serious injury or death is reduced considerably. Also the need to manage it with SWAT or bring out special operations begins to diminish. The key is having the sergeant on the radio to slow down the situation and manage the call.”
— Chief Bill Lansdowne, San Diego PD
Young Cops and TASERs
“Younger officers are more likely to use electronic control weapons because they aren’t as experienced in de-escalation, while older officers use verbal commands more and the device less.”
— Chief Charles McClelland, Houston (Tex.) PD
Train Officers to Talk
“Policing is a people business, and we ought to spend as much time teaching our officers how to talk to people as how and when to use force. There’s no piece of equipment known to mankind that’s going to replace the ability to communicate with people on the street.”
— Chief Kim Dine, Frederick (Md.) PD
Primed to Use Force
“We have found [in research studies] that by the time officers leave their academy training, they’re already more prone to want to use force to resolve any kind of situation rather than talk to people. They’re less likely to want to engage in active listening and more machismo about how to interact with people. They haven’t even hit the road yet.
“I think it is part of the police culture that is being instilled at our training academies and something to think about.”
— Prof. Dennis Rosenbaum, University of Illinois-Chicago
“I saw the use of TASERs going up [and] that defensive tactics weren’t being used. We are now training once a month on defensive tactics…to go back to the basics of using verbal skills and defensive tactics, as opposed to automatically going to the TASER... Last year, the use of the TASERs went down, and we also saw injuries go down.”
— Chief Ronald Ricucci, Takoma Park (Md.) PD
Cop Mode vs. Social Worker Mode
“…we do not always do a great job of teaching officers the safest tactics for dealing with people in crisis. Confrontational tactics, such as boxing a suspect in or making direct eye contact, can actually get officers into a lot of trouble when dealing with a person in crisis, as opposed to a criminal suspect.
“[O]fficers instinctively react to situations in ‘cop mode’—this is what we are all taught and do instinctively. This is why the ability to distinguish a person in crisis from a criminal and to immediately change tactics is so critically important…. Officers are often completely unaware that it is their actions that were creating the pressure or danger….
“Most people in crisis have no intent to harm the police, but officers are routinely injured when people in crises just seem to ‘explode.’ All the signs of a pending explosion are there to be seen, but it takes an officer who can quickly shift gears [from ‘cop mode’ into ‘social worker mode’] to see these clues and to immediately change tactics.”
— Capt. Fran Healy, Philadelphia PD
“We need to train our officers to understand that calming a situation down and getting out of it can often be better than winding up with an arrest. Traditionally, we haven’t trained our officers…to think, ‘If I make a decision to walk away and nothing happens, I’ve resolved the situation.’ We have spent a lot of time talking about this idea inside our department. Today, our officers are trained to think about finding a way of disengaging from a situation and not escalating it…. [T]he concept of ‘tactical disengagement’ is working remarkably well for us.”
— Cmsr. Robert Haas, Cambridge (Mass.) PD
Ability Over Rank
“…when you are putting personnel in charge of major events, it’s important that they have gone through certain training and have met certain qualifications for the task. The issue of their rank is less important than the idea that they have demonstrated qualifications for the job at hand. I think that kind of approach should not get lost.”
— Director Bernard Melekian, Community Oriented Policing Services Office, DOJ
“In Arlington, we really stress building the legitimacy of our role in the community. We want this topic to be on the forefront of our officers’ minds. They need to ask themselves: ‘What have I done today, in this encounter, on this traffic stop, on this call, to earn the right to police this community?’ ”
— Asst. Chief Will Johnson, Arlington (Tex.) PD
Customer Satisfaction Survey
“…we’ve developed a standardized public encounter survey that we’re using in a number of cities…. The chief sends out a letter saying, ‘You had a recent encounter with one of my officers. Would you please take a few minutes to evaluate that encounter?’ We’re hoping this becomes a standard practice that all of you will use down the road.”
— Prof. Dennis Rosenbaum, University of Illinois-Chicago
“Our early intervention system [for managing officer behavior] is triggered by several things in addition to use-of-force incidents, including missed court dates, citizen complaints, vehicle accidents involving the officer, lawsuits or torts against the officer, or notices of intent to sue. We used to flag someone if they had five uses of force, but…we lowered the threshold to three for force incidents.
“Our department’s response to a first trigger (three problems within a rolling 12-month period) is a face-to-face informal meeting with the officer’s commander. For the second hit, which could be one more incident within the same rolling 12-month period, the response is now a formal face-to-face meeting with the commander. If there is a third hit, the response is a formal face-to-face with the department psychologist. The fourth hit gets the officer a face-to-face with the psychologist and an assessment. A fifth hit within a rolling 12-month calendar is a transfer….
“The union was strongly opposed when we started talking about moving people around. But everybody that I’ve had to move has come back and said, ‘Thank you, that was the best thing you could have done for me.’ Sometimes the change in environment is enough to bring about change in an officer’s behavior.”
— Chief Ray Schultz, Albuquerque PD
Poor Articulation a Problem
“Officers can be on solid ground in terms of using force, but they don’t know how to explain what they did in a written report. And if you can’t put it on paper and it’s second-guessed, you’re going to have a problem.”
— Cmsr. Charles Ramsey, Philadelphia PD
Sergeants Should Guide Report Writing
“Because Graham v. Connor requires actions to be objectively reasonable, not merely reasonable in the officer’s own mind,…situations [are] a bit more complicated for us. [A]udio and video recording also make it easier to second-guess what the police officer did in some cases. It is very important for officers to get support in learning how to clearly explain why they did what they did.
“I think the sergeant is important after the action, to guide the officer in describing how the event unfolded and what contributed to their use-of-force decisions., I emphasize that the sergeants are not creating the facts; they are only helping officers describe them.”
— Terry Gainer, U.S. Senate Sergeant at Arms
Promoted Back to the Street
“If your department is like mine, your best and brightest want to be homicide detectives or work in robbery, vice and narcotics. But your very best people…should be in the uniform patrol division. When people get upset with the police, it’s usually because of something that happened in the patrol division.
“I’ve changed the promotional process so that if you’re going to be a lieutenant or a captain, you have to ‘volunteer’ to go back to patrol and put the uniform back on and remember what it’s like to do the everyday job…Once they’re there, we need to hold them accountable for each and every one of their people. Lots of patrol officers are very young officers who need a lot of supervision.”
— Chief Bill Lansdowne, San Diego PD