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Cops' Use of Force: 13 Policies That Could Be Coming to Police in Denver and Beyond

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Criticism continues to be lobbed at the Denver Police Department and other law enforcers in the city over alleged brutality incidents.

Just last week, for instance, we told you about a lawsuit filed against Denver police officer Choice Johnson, who was caught on video tossing a man down a set of stairs — but later had his punishment rescinded.

That's one reason that Denver Police Chief Robert White has been so public about the need for updating use-of-force policies.

White sits on the board of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a national organization that's just released what it refers to as "thirty guiding principles" to meaningful reform. Among them is a mandate not to shoot into moving vehicles — an approach the DPD embraced after the fatal shooting of Jessie Hernandez in January 2015.

However, plenty of departments across the country continue to allow officers to shoot into vehicles if they believe the driver is using the ride as a weapon. This rationale was used during a law-enforcement shooting in California last month that killed former Red Rocks bartender Kelsey Hauser; she was a passenger in the car.

In an interview with 7News, White said he wants a local committee to review the PERF document with an eye toward adopting many, if not all, of the proposals — and given other high-profile use-of-force cases across the country, there's likely to be pressure on other departments to do likewise.

Below, we've highlighted the thirteen principles directly related to policy, illustrated with images from a 2014 police brutality march involving members of Anonymous and Occupy Denver that resulted in six arrests. They're followed by the aforementioned 7News piece and the complete PERF report.

1. The sanctity of human life should be at the heart of everything an agency does.

Agency mission statements, policies and training curricula should emphasize the sanctity of all human life — the general public, police officers and criminal suspects — and the importance of treating all persons with dignity and respect.

2. Departments should adopt policies that hold themselves to a higher standard than the legal requirements of Graham v. Connor.

Agency use-of-force policies should go beyond the legal standard of “objective reasonableness” outlined in the 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision Graham v. Connor. This landmark decision should be seen as “necessary but not sufficient,” because it does not provide police with sufficient guidance on use of force. As a result, prosecutors and grand juries often find that a fatal shooting by an officer is not a crime, even though they may not consider the use of force proportional or necessary. Agencies should adopt policies and training to hold themselves to a higher standard, based on sound tactics, consideration of whether the use of force was proportional to the threat, and the sanctity of human life. Many police agencies already have policies that go beyond legal requirements. For example, many police agencies have adopted pursuit policies, and rules barring officers from shooting at or from moving vehicles, that go beyond current legal precedents.

3. Police use of force must meet the test of proportionality.

In assessing whether a response is proportional, officers must ask themselves, “How would the general public view the action we took? Would they think it was appropriate to the entire situation and to the severity of the threat posed to me or to the public?”

4. Adopt de-escalation as formal agency policy.

Agencies should adopt General Orders and/or policy statements making it clear that de-escalation is the preferred, tactically sound approach in many critical incidents. General Orders should require officers to receive training on key de-escalation principles. Many agencies already provide crisis intervention training as a key element of de-escalation, but crisis intervention policies and training must be merged with a new focus on tactics that officers can use to de-escalate situations. De-escalation policy should also include discussion of proportionality, using distance and cover, tactical repositioning, “slowing down” situations that do not pose an immediate threat, calling for supervisory and other resources, etc. Officers must be trained in these principles, and their supervisors should hold them accountable for adhering to them.

5. The Critical Decision-Making Model provides a new way to approach critical incidents.

Policy on use of force should be based on the concept of officers using a decision-making framework during critical incidents and other tactical situations. Departments should consider adopting the Critical Decision-Making Model (CDM), which PERF has adapted from the United Kingdom’s National Decision Model. The CDM provides officers with a logical, easy-to-use thought process for quickly analyzing and responding appropriately to a range of incidents. The CDM guides officers through a process of:

• Collecting information,
• Assessing the situation, threats, and risks,
• Considering police powers and agency policy,
• Identifying options and determining the best course of action, and
• Acting, reviewing, and re-assessing the situation.

The CDM is a constructive process that provides a framework for going beyond the minimum legal standard of objective reasonableness.

6. Duty to intervene: Officers need to prevent other officers from using excessive force.

Officers should be obligated to intervene when they believe another officer is about to use excessive or unnecessary force, or when they witness colleagues using excessive or unnecessary force, or engaging in other misconduct. Agencies should also train officers to  detect warning signs that another officer might be moving toward excessive or unnecessary force and to intervene before the situation escalates.

7. Respect the sanctity of life by promptly rendering first aid.

Officers should render first aid to subjects who have been injured as a result of police actions and should promptly request medical assistance.

8. Shooting at vehicles must be strictly prohibited.

Agencies should adopt a strict prohibition against shooting at or from a moving vehicle unless someone in the vehicle is using or threatening deadly force by means other than the vehicle itself.

9. Prohibit use of deadly force against individuals who pose a danger only to themselves.

Agencies should prohibit the use of deadly force, and carefully consider the use of many less-lethal options, against individuals who pose a danger only to themselves and not to other members of the public or to officers. Officers should be prepared to exercise considerable discretion to wait as long as necessary so that the situation can be resolved peacefully.

10. Document use-of-force incidents, and review your data and enforcement practices to ensure that they are fair and non-discriminatory.

Agencies should document all uses of force that involve a hand or leg technique; the use of a deadly weapon, less-lethal weapon, or weapon of opportunity; or any instance where injury is observed or alleged by the subject. In addition, agencies should capture and review reports on the pointing of a firearm or an electronic control weapon at an individual as a threat of force.

This information is critical for both external reporting and internal improvements to policy and training. Agencies should consult with their communities to ensure that use of force and enforcement practices are not discriminatory.

Agencies should develop strong policies and protocols for reviewing all use-of-force reports to ensure accuracy and completeness, including comparing written reports with video footage from body-worn cameras, dashboard cameras, and other sources. Special attention should be paid to ensuring that reports provide clear and specific details about the incident and avoid generic, “boilerplate” language.

11. To build understanding and trust, agencies should issue regular reports to the public on use of force.

Agencies should publish regular reports on their officers’ use of force, including officer-involved shootings, deployment of less-lethal options, and use of canines. These reports should include discussion of racial issues and efforts to prevent all types of bias and discrimination. These reports should be published annually at a minimum, and should be widely available through the agency’s website and in hard copy.

12. All critical police incidents resulting in death or serious bodily injury should be reviewed by specially trained personnel.

Incidents that involve death or serious injury as a result of a police action should be reviewed by a team of specially trained personnel. This can be done either within the agency through a separate “force investigation unit” that has appropriate resources, expertise, and community trust, or by another law enforcement agency that has the resources, expertise, and credibility to conduct the investigation. Other uses of force should be investigated by the officer’s supervisor and reviewed through the chain of command. Supervisors should respond to the scene of any use-of-force incident to initiate the investigation. Agencies should thoroughly investigate all non-training-related firearms discharges, regardless of whether the subject was struck.

13. Agencies need to be transparent in providing information following use-of-force incidents.

Agencies that experience an officer-involved shooting or other serious use-of-force incident should release as much information as possible to the public, as quickly as possible, acknowledging that the information is preliminary and may change as more details unfold. At a minimum, agencies should release basic, preliminary information about an incident within hours of its occurrence, and should provide regular updates as new information becomes available (as they would with other serious incidents that the public and the news media are interested in).

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