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Friday, June 5, 2020
In: Police

06/05/20 Use of Force Response

We have received several emails and phone calls from citizens suggesting our adherence to eight guidelines highlighted by useofforceproject.org or 8cantwait.org.  The two sites are similar in their desire for departments to follow these suggestions which claim to reduce the use of deadly force.  Policy related to the most difficult and complex decision an officer may have to make is not simple and policy must coincide with thorough and comprehensive training for officers.  The Westminster Police Department adheres to these eight guidelines with best practices which are derived by policy and training.  That being said, in light of recent events, we will continue to evaluate all of our policies and practices paying special attention to those involving use of force.

 

  1. Failing to require officers to de-escalate situations, where possible, by communicating with subjects, maintaining distance, and otherwise eliminating the need to use force
    1. De-escalation is a standard practice and expectation within the Westminster Police Department.  Our training focuses on de-escalation, legal requirements, techniques, tactics, considerations, case law and various other considerations.  All officers in Westminster receive on-going de-escalation training, which is conducted as standalone training and in concert with in-service training; such as, arrest procedures and officer survival.  We provide online and in-person training to address legal updates, legislative changes, case law requirements and policy revisions.  Classes are taught by department instructors and independent experts hired by the department. 
  2. Allowing officers to choke or strangle civilians, in many cases where less lethal force could be used instead, resulting in the unnecessary death or serious injury of civilians
    1. There must be distinction and recognition that Westminster Police Department does not teach or authorize “choke holds” or techniques which restrict an individual’s ability to breathe and never have.  Our use of force policy only allows the use of a shoulder pin neck restraint in extreme and limited circumstances when the officer is being attacked and violently assaulted.  Our training focuses the use of this technique when an officer is tackled and in a dangerous fight on the ground where their options to escape and defend themselves are limited or nonexistent.  This defensive technique affords an officer an option which could prevent the imminent need and use of deadly force to save his or her own life. We do not authorize the shoulder pin technique in an instance where lower levels of force are sufficient or when a person is handcuffed or otherwise restrained and in the very rare instances when it can be used, never restricts a person’s airflow.  
  3. Failing to require officers to intervene and stop excessive force used by other officers and report these incidents immediately to a supervisor
    1. Our policy requires officers intervene and we have a duty to report.  Officers also have a duty to report through Colorado law.  It is unacceptable when we have an officer behave inexcusably, but on rare occasion it does happen.  Recently there was media coverage of an officer who reported another officer for using excessive force in our department.  The police department immediately conducted an investigation and the officer was later criminally charged, convicted and is no longer employed.  This highlights the culture of our department, that we hold each other accountable and take swift and appropriate action when necessary. 
  4. Failing to restrict officers from shooting at moving vehicles, which is regarded as a particularly dangerous and ineffective tactic
    1. The department conducts training regarding best practices related to shooting at moving vehicles, but our policy does not outright ban this.  Outright banning a tactic is difficult because we cannot predict every deadly force situation and having a blanket policy is not the best solution. To ban this completely is to ignore the chance, albeit it small, when this might be the only option to stop a deadly threat. Our training regarding moving vehicles is to get out of the way and not put yourself in a vulnerable position to begin with.  There is no way to have simple policy that addresses the most complex and difficult decisions officers make in an instance.  We believe proper training, and teaching our officers to recognize, understand and utilize good decision making and judgment within this specific area is crucial. 
  5. Failing to develop a Force Continuum that limits the types of force and/or weapons that can be used to respond to specific types of resistance
    1. Our department currently has a use of force continuum as a guideline for officers which is based on United States Supreme Court case law established in their Graham v. Connor ruling.  Officers must establish reasonableness within the Court’s three-prong rule which justifies the level of force applied to the respective level of resistance and danger.
  6. Failing to require officers to exhaust all other reasonable means before resorting to deadly force
    1. The keyword in this recommendation is reasonable and our policy and training focuses on this very aspect, as mentioned above in #5.  The deeper context of this goes beyond simple policy, but into training and implemented practice along with accountability.  Officers train on this topic semi-annually during in-service training in all disciplines. According to the Graham decision by the US Supreme Court noted above, any use of force, including deadly physical force, must be “objectively reasonable based on the totality of the circumstances”. This is mirrored in Colorado State Law.  
  7. Failing to require officers to give a verbal warning, when possible, before shooting at a civilian
    1. Case law and policy guide our officers on providing individuals with clear identification and direction prior to a deadly encounter when possible.  Officers are often thrust into a deadly encounter in an instant and the amount of officers being ambushed is increasing at an alarming rate.  Again, we believe this falls into proper and thorough training.  We regularly use of scenario based training that has simulated deadly force encounters using simmunitions based guns.  Additionally, the department utilizes a grant funded, multi-jurisdictional simulator that provides highly interactive, realistic training. If such a warning is possible, this is appropriate. However, the need to use deadly force is most often within seconds or fractions of a second of a perceived imminent threat and never allow for this verbal tactic. To “require” this verbal tactic simply ignores the reality of the majority of these encounters.
  8. Failing to require officers to report each time they use force or threaten to use force against civilians
    1. Finally, our department requires officer’s report to their supervisor each time they use force that’s likely to cause an injury or does cause injury, no matter how minor, prior to the end of their shift. Even if there is a claim of injury where no physical evidence exists, the department errors on the side of reporting and evaluates that incident as well. The officer’s supervisor immediately conducts an independent review to document the circumstances, resistance, force, and de-escalation techniques used to determine if the force was reasonable, appropriate and if other considerations could have or should have been used.  This Use of Force report completed by the supervisor is then reviewed by a subject matter expert, command staff and the deputy chief of the involved officer before a final decision is made on the reasonableness of the force. In short, there is a 4 layer review of every use of force by an officer in this department. These incidents are then tracked and reviewed in regards to the individual officer 3 times a year by supervisory staff to ensure we are not seeing an individual with an usually high use of force incidents. In the department, all these individual incidents are then complied and evaluated annually by the Subject Matter Experts responsible for training in that area, and also by the Command Staff (Deputy Chiefs and Chief) to ensure there are not patterns of behavior that need to be addressed department wide.

In rare cases of excessive force complaints, the incident undergoes a fifth layer of review as an Internal Affairs investigation. In these cases, the incident is reviewed from beginning to end from a fresh perspective. The completed investigation is then reviewed by the Complaint Review Team of WPD which consists of at least two Command level officers and two community members who have been appointed to the Complaint Review Team. The Team’s recommendations are forwarded to the Deputy Chief of the involved officer and to the Chief of Police for final review and findings.

As a point of reference and perspective, for the years 2017, 2018, and 2019 officers use force during a citizen contact in less than 2% of all police calls for service.

We commend those who are reaching out to their local police departments and engaging in ongoing dialogue.We believe open and honest conversation is one of the most important steps to building a strong working relationship founded on trust.All eight of these topics are complex, sensitive and impactful, particularly when they directly affect you or any member of our community.The need for deadly force carries a tragic outcome for all involved; the individual, their friends and family, the officer, department, and community as a whole.We are disheartened that nearly all of the deadly encounters in Westminster were rooted in drugs which influenced the individual’s decisions and actions.Additionally, mental health contributes significantly to the problem.Westminster continues to take steps to identify ways to address the root cause of these encounters and continues to evaluate how to train officers in response that can avoid deadly encounters.Recently the department was awarded a grant which allows us to institute a joint mental health venture with Community Reach which allows the department to have two, full time, mental health clinicians available in our building to respond with officers to calls potentially involving mental health issues.Together, in partnership, we can and will make a difference.Please continue to work with us through conversation and action to make our community better than it already is. 

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