City Police Departments Examining Policies to Avoid Federal Oversight

by | December 8, 2014

By Jeremy Kohler

Police departments not already under federal oversight to reduce deadly force by officers are pursuing reforms on their own in response to growing criticism that police use too much force too often.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice civil rights division announced it found a pattern of "unreasonable and unnecessary use of force" by the Cleveland police, whose officers it said used guns, Tasers, pepper spray and their fists excessively, unnecessarily and in retaliation. The investigation was underway two years before the fatal shooting Nov. 22 of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was waving a toy gun in a park.

Cleveland will become one of nine U.S. cities to enter a consent decree with the civil rights division _ a court-backed agreement to enact wide policy changes. That list includes Seattle, New Orleans and Albuquerque, N.M. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's comment that Ferguson police need "wholesale change" suggests they will join the list when the Justice Department's civil rights investigation is complete.

The St. Louis Police Department is not among those under federal oversight, but Police Chief Sam Dotson said Friday that he is studying changes being made in cities under consent decrees and others such as Las Vegas, Baltimore and Philadelphia, which are working on reforms with another arm of the Justice Department, the office of Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS.

Dotson said he expects to introduce wider training for officers about recognizing "implicit bias" and helping make better decisions about when to shoot. He said he also has started discussions with state public safety officials about making that training available statewide.

"We have to keep reinventing ourselves," Dotson said Friday. "I'm having research done on ... places that have had federal intervention and picking up their best practices and seeing how they can apply here."

Change is coming. In New York, where a grand jury last week did not return an indictment against a police officer who killed an unarmed man using a chokehold, the mayor and police commissioner announced plans Thursday to spend $35 million on training officers to talk suspects into compliance instead of physically taking them down.

Another city to watch is Seattle, where the Justice Department is enforcing reforms but is meeting resistance from the rank-and-file.

In August 2010, a police officer there pulled up to a homeless man carrying a knife and ordered him three times to drop it. When the man didn't immediately comply, the officer shot and killed him. The man with the knife was partially deaf, and the knife was a woodcarving tool.

Seattle's firearms review board ruled the shooting unjustified. The officer resigned but did not stand trial because the district attorney ruled there was not enough evidence to convince a jury he had acted with malice.

A "pattern and practice" investigation by the Justice Department's civil rights division concluded Seattle police were too quick to use force and often used it excessively.

Seattle police, under the direction of a court-appointed monitor, rewrote its policy on the use of force, requiring officers to use force minimally and try to de-escalate tense situations with words first. The policy also required all officers to carry a "less-lethal" tool, such as a Taser, in addition to their firearm, and to use the least amount of force necessary in an arrest. And it required officers to recognize that conduct before the use of force may influence the level of force needed.

More than 100 police officers sued the police department to stop the new use-of-force policy, claiming it would put officers in danger by making them hesitate in dangerous scenarios, but a judge threw out their case in October.

Las Vegas police aren't under a consent decree, but they were headed there after an investigation by the Las Vegas Review-Journal newspaper in 2011 exposed a culture in which unnecessary shootings were always found to be justified.

Instead, Las Vegas became the first city to work with the Justice Department's COPS office through the "collaborative reform" program, to establish its own reforms instead of the much more expensive process of having the federal government impose them.

After a militarized response to protests in Ferguson that drew international criticism last summer, St. Louis County police were also enrolled in the program to review training, use of force, handling mass demonstrations, stops, searches, arrests, and fair and impartial policing. The assessment includes the county police academy, which trains officers for many police departments in the region.

Las Vegas is emphasizing the de-escalation of tense situations, said Capt. Matt McCarthy, who heads the department's internal oversight efforts. Officers call it "slowing it down."

Many police shootings happen in an eye blink. In Cleveland, an officer fired the fatal shots at Tamir two seconds after pulling up at the scene.

On Aug. 19, two St. Louis police officers pulled up to the knife-wielding shoplifting suspect Kajieme Powell and killed him almost immediately in a hail of gunfire. In contrast, Las Vegas officers are learning to set perimeters to contain people who seem threatening, try to slow their movement, and use nonfatal tools such as beanbag rounds or Tasers. The city also tries to bring a supervisor to the scene as soon as possible to add experienced hands.

There is an effort to "get it into the officer's mind that this guy's life is important too," McCarthy said.

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