Cracking Down on Deadly Force: How 3 California Police Departments Overhauled Their Policies

In Los Angeles, police can't always shoot at moving vehicles. San Francisco banned choke holds. Stockton officers are required to intervene if their colleagues use excessive force.
by | March 27, 2019 AT 7:05 AM

By Hannah Wiley

In Los Angeles, police can't always shoot at moving vehicles. San Francisco banned choke holds. Stockton officers are required to intervene if their colleagues use excessive force.

They are among the California police departments that cracked down on deadly force policies following controversies similar to Stephon Clark's death in Sacramento in March 2018.

Two officers shot and killed Clark, a 22-year-old unarmed black man, after chasing him into his grandmother's backyard and mistaking his cell phone for a gun. Prosecutors did not charge the officers, saying they feared for their lives.

The Sacramento Police Department has nevertheless begun making changes to its use of force policies. A California Department of Justice report in January made 49 recommendations for Sacramento drawn from police agencies across the state.

Marcus Basquez, a spokesman for the Sacramento department, said its research and development team has implemented more than half of the proposals, including strengthening body camera rules. The department policy already expected officers to use de-escalation techniques, including verbal warnings and "time, distance, cover," when reasonably possible.

"The use of force policy is currently being updated and will include significant updated changes, including many of these recommendations," Basquez said. "We are committed to transparency. Anyone can go to (our page) to read what our policies are and we are currently looking at our use of force policy to update it where we can."

But rebuilding community rapport will take time, money and buy-in from all stakeholders if the experiences in other cities are any indication.

It's been a three-year process for San Francisco, four for Stockton and nearly 20 for Los Angeles.

"No department is going to change overnight," said San Francisco Police Chief William Scott. "The research, understanding data, revising your policies, training to your policies, it's a process. It takes years, really, to implement that change."

Stockton Chief of Police Eric Jones said a best-practice policy rewrite is just a starting point.

In 2015, the Stockton Police Department partnered with Urban Institute, a think tank in Washington D.C. specializing in economic and social policy. The institute surveyed community trust in law enforcement throughout six U.S. cities, including Stockton, and then worked with departments to change policing practices.

When Jones got the baseline results back, he was disappointed to say the least.

"It was a gut punch to see how dismal the numbers were," Jones said.

After years of topping the list of deadly force rates and having collected a litany of egregious force allegations against it, the statistics confirmed what Jones had long hypothesized but underestimated. Years of over-policing earned officers a deeply fractured relationship with the very residents for whom they had pledged to die in the line of duty.

The study found that only 26 percent of residents in the participating cities felt that police were fair and impartial, while more than 55 percent believed police treated people differently based on their race and ethnicity.

In the last four years, Stockton has worked with Urban Institute to create a procedural justice strategic plan. The new approach puts fairness, transparency and impartiality at the forefront of every enforcement action.

More than 400 officers have since undergone eight-hour training sessions focused on community reconciliation and implicit bias, and Jones has participated in 200 community listening sessions.

"My role has been to infuse into the culture of the police department the trust-building work that we hold near and dear to our heart," Jones said recently during a police-community reconciliation symposium with the John Jay College. "We knew we needed to reconnect to the community".

The use-of-force policy now limits canine force and in most cases prohibits officers from shooting at moving vehicles and fleeing suspected felons..

As a result, murder rates and non-fatal shootings are down by more than 30 percent, and an increase in anonymous tips helped clear 67 percent of open homicide cases in 2018, the department said.

"I literally can see the changes," said Toni McNeil, director of Social Justice Ministry at Victory in Praise Church and community organizer with Faith in the Valley of San Joaquin County.

"Officers are more approachable," McNeil added, speaking alongside Jones at the symposium. "If there's a concern or question in regard to why something happened or why it is done in this way, there is space that is now created to have those conversations -- whether or not it's uncomfortable."

San Francisco similarly invited the United States Department of Justice in 2016 to conduct a six-month analysis on policing and community trust.

The DOJ dished out hundreds of recommendations. The agency now requires extensive reporting for a spectrum of force tactics, from pointing a firearm to using an impact weapon.

The sweeping policy requires officers to intervene when another agent is using excessive force and urges officers to rely on an index of de-escalation strategies, like verbal warnings and non-deadly physical intervention.

Scott, San Francisco's police chief, said use-of-force incidents are down 30 percent and the department has already implemented more than 100 of the DOJ's 272 recommendations.

The mayor authorized $17.5 million for the process, a price tag Scott said "was just a start."

"We always have to evolve with training needs, and technology and equipment changes," Scott said. "This reform work is expensive, and it comes at a price."

When the Los Angeles Police Department started the "long, long process" of reform, spokesperson Josh Rubenstein said, the DOJ helped financially back the initiatives through a 2001 consent decree.

"(The decree) gave us the financial power and the motivation and the incentive and the push to make those tremendous changes," Rubenstein said.

The agency had stacked countless charges against it over many years, including corruption, physical abuse and constitutional misconduct.

Under the decree, the LAPD opened an investigative unit to analyze deadly force incidents and now requires administrative review and oversight into when and why force was used. In an effort to increase transparency between the public and police, the LAPD includes use-of-force reports on its website.

A 2009 Harvard study determined that reducing force had no impact on crime rates in L.A., which decreased under the new policy.

The decree was lifted 12 years later, after the department met a significant number of the requirements that Rubenstein said required a "culture and mind shift of the entire department."

"Every single division or bureau or how a department is designed needs to come together to discuss what that change means to everyone else," he said. "You're taking about big changes here, not small changes."

Now a statewide approach to use-of-force policies has gained new traction in California Legislature.

AB 392 would update the "reasonable" standard officers who use deadly force must meet to a stricter "necessary" requirement. That means they would have to exhaust all other options, including using de-escalation strategies like verbal warnings or persuasion tactics before they could employ force.

Officers would risk facing criminal charges if they use lethal force, a legislative element that's drawn sharp criticism from enforcement agencies.

The California Police Chiefs Association is instead sponsoring SB 230, by Sen. Anna Caballero, D-Salinas. The bill demands greater force training in every California department, but leaves it up to local jurisdictions to determine what those procedures look like, a point of contention for opponents who say that without a uniform standard, the proposal is a "bill with no teeth."

Seth Stoughton, a use-of-force expert and law professor at the University of South Carolina, said the bills would likely work well together, and overall do little to change what some departments already have in place.

Officials in Stockton, San Francisco and Los Angeles all stopped short of endorsing legislation, but said their reform work will continue regardless of what happens in the Capitol.

"I think it's a very good policy and it's a policy that's served us well," Scott said. "Other departments would have to tweak their policy to fit the needs of their community. But it's a good template for people to take a look at. Whether it works for everybody remains to be seen, but it's worked for us."

(c)2019 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)