Baltimore Police New Use-of-Force Policy Relies on Orders Officers Say They Routinely Ignore
New strategy calls for de-escalation and proportional force, but guidelines will be part of general orders which officers testified in Freddie Gray case were routinely brushed aside
TAYA GRAHAM, TRNN: This is Taya Graham and Stephen Janis reporting for the Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland.
KEVIN DAVIS: Some of the key points in this use of force policy include the emphasis on the sanctity of life, that’s actually in the policy now, and the need to de-escalate when possible. New, much clearer terminology and definitions. It establishes, our new policy, establishes a use of force model to assist officers with making force decisions. You will be provided with a copy of this after the press conference. It requires officers to provide aid, including EMS or immediate hospital transport, to injured persons or those claiming to be injured. It restricts the situations in which police officers are authorized to discharge a firearm at or from a moving vehicle. And it requires police officers to intercede and notify a supervisor if they see a fellow police officer using excessive force.
GRAHAM: That was police officer Kevin Davis announcing an overhaul of the police department’s policy on use of force–a set of guidelines that has not been revised since 2003. Among the more interesting items is the requirement that officers intercede if they witness excessive force, and restrictions on when an officer can fire a weapon into a moving vehicle.
The plan, as Davis outlined it, will be set forth in what is known as general orders, specific departmental policies that, ostensibly, officers must follow. But during the trials of six officers charged with the death of Freddie Gray, police testified those orders are often ignored, raising questions about how effective these new policies will be.
Stephen, can you tell us what just happened inside?
STEPHEN JANIS, TRNN: Well, this was a press conference called to announce a new policy with regards to use of force, which is use of force by police in situations where force is deemed necessary. And these policies, according to the police commissioner and the people at the press conference, including the mayor, are intended to change the strategy when it comes to confronting people or applying force in situations that are, again, deemed necessary.
So basically, two of the major things they say are going to be different than the last time they changed the use of force policy in 2003, one of them is a policy of de-escalation. So instead of having a policy where if you see someone with a knife or with a gun, you’re supposed to use tactics and strategies to de-escalate. Not immediately draw your gun, I’m assuming, and immediately shoot somebody. So these are something that is considered to be best practices and starting to take hold in police departments across the country.
The other thing that I thought was interesting is the sanctity of human life, which is that the policy of the police department is to protect life. Not [necessarily] to be aggressive. But of course, these policies are all very interesting given the history of the Baltimore police department.
The Baltimore police department, back in 2010-2011, when the mayor actually in a press conference mentioned that they had the lowest homicide rate, were known for a group called VSAID, which is the violent crime impact division, which was extremely aggressive. And one of the things they mentioned in this press conference was, you know, they’re not supposed to shoot into a moving vehicle, or different strategies. But that was something that happened quite often in cases I’ve covered.
GRAHAM: Now, isn’t that because now they’re trying to make sure that the use of force is actually proportional. Is that correct?
JANIS: Right. That’s a very good way–yes, proportional, which is really interesting. When you think about it, if you have to tell police officers to use proportional force, what does that mean? Does that mean that, well, that means that sometimes, and I think in past [inaud.] there’s been overwhelming report of force, which is a kind of sort of strategy that leads to someone with a knife getting shot 20 times. So that’s a really good point. You know, the philosophy of proportional force is interesting. It will be interesting also to see how it plays out in terms of, you know, when someone has a knife, will they get shot.
GRAHAM: Were you surprised to hear that complaints of discourtesy and excessive force have actually dropped by 40 percent this year in 2016?
JANIS: That’s a great point you bring up. We asked the police commissioner two questions. One about use of force in general, and one about complaints about excessive force. And let’s go and play his answer
You mentioned excessive force. How many, what is the [inaud.] to your statistics on just general use of force? Do you have that number, like, in terms of you’re doing a comparison, or–.
DAVIS: We have all those numbers. The number that I pay close attention to every day is the number of overall complaints that come in from citizens. That is down dramatically, and we’ll get you those raw numbers and percentages. But particularly, the excessive force complaints. And we’re halfway through the year, and to be down 40 percent I think really says something about where we are.
GRAHAM: Now, what about transparency as part of the use of force process?
JANIS: Well, one of the things, you know, that they’ve talked about almost two years ago, before the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, was the fact that they were going to post what’s called after-action reports on a website, which would allow everybody to see how force was justified, and what was done. And I think that was really important. But today we asked the commissioner about that, and I think we got an answer that probably is not going to be satisfying to the public.
Are you going to make after-action reports public? Because I know that was an issue in terms of after-action reports, [about] being public and turning them over to the public, and is it regular [inaud.].
DAVIS: I’m going to have Director Johnson answer that question. And we’re, have some big plans for that, as well. The website.
JAMES JOHNSON: So, for individual cases, I don’t know that those are necessarily public records. But for the aggregate information on use of force, we’re definitely going to be much more transparent. Because we already have plans that our new website is going to have a transparency page that–in the very beginning it will have all of the policies that are part of the cop manual on it, policies. And then also information on complaints, as well as just general use of force, will be available.
We have a partnership with an organization called Comport. It’s going to access all of this data, anonymize it for us, and place it on the website.
GRAHAM: So, during the press conference, did they explain how these new regulations are actually going to be enforced?
JANIS: Well, that’s really interesting. Because these new use of force, which we’re holding right here, okay, are going to be part of the city’s general orders. General orders are the orders that the police commissioner promulgates in a book that police officers are supposed to read. You follow to the letter of the law, or the letter of the actual directive.
But we know from the Freddie Gray trial that police officers didn’t follow general orders when it came to seatbelting in Freddie Gray. And their argument during the case was, we don’t follow general orders. So I think it’s a really interesting dilemma, where the police commissioner is standing up there and saying, you know, this is going to be the new way people are going to approach force, when just two months earlier in a trial, under oath, officers said, we don’t follow the rules. And which is also at the crux of the Freddie Gray case. They didn’t buckle him in, they didn’t provide medical assistance.
GRAHAM: Which was a general order that had just been released.
JANIS: They were all general orders. So I mean, if anyone hasn’t seen them, this is what they look like. And this is what police officers are supposed to review. But really, you know, it’s very questionable, because it really made the linchpin of their defense, we don’t follow these orders.
GRAHAM: If it’s common practice to ignore general orders, are these general orders going to have any impact?
JANIS: I think that’s the crux of the question of this. You know, you can send this stuff out, you know, you talk to any police officer, they say, well, what we learn in the academy has nothing to do with what we learn on the street. And the officers also said in the trial, we get so many orders. They send them in an email. I never open the email attachment. There seems to be a culture, at least suggested by the trial, that officers ignore general orders and general orders are just kind of considered to be guidelines, you know, but not necessarily enforceable.
So how this will translate into a change in culture I think remains to be seen, and is a big, big question about this particular announcement that they’re going to change their use of force policy.
GRAHAM: This is Taya Graham and Stephen Janis reporting for the Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland.
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