At last week’s San Francisco Justice Summit that focused on police use of force, Jeff Adachi called on use of force expert Ken Williams to break down several recent shootings, particularly the December 2015 killing of Mario Woods by San Francisco Police officers.
Ken Williams is a decorated former homicide detective from a police department near Boston. For the past three years he has worked as a consultant on the use of force and officer-involved shootings.
The legal standard for use of deadly force is that law enforcement officers who perceive themselves to be under deadly threat, or a citizen to be under threat, in order to stop that threat can use upwards to lethal force.
The controlling case on the use of force is the 1989 US Supreme Court Case, Graham v. Connor, in which the court ruled, “The ‘reasonableness’ of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.”
Cities have then set their own policies which can say that “the officer must employ certain tactics before escalating to the use of deadly force.” The San Francisco use of force policy has a date of 1995 – the last time it was actually revised. The city of San Francisco is in the process of a major revision on their use of force policy.
Mr. Williams noted in the current policy at the time of the shooting, there is no provision for de-escalation in the policy – it allows for the use of the chokehold. It prohibits shooting into a vehicle, but then provides exceptions.
He told Jeff Adachi, “The policy that is in place, by not offering proper guidance lends an excuse for the use of deadly force in encounters that should respect the sanctity of life and take other measures before you use deadly.”
Jeff Adachi then asked Ken Williams to analyze portions of several of the recent San Francisco incidents, starting with the Mario Woods case.
He asked, does the fact that Mr. Woods was holding a knife justify the police using deadly force?
Mr. Williams answered – no. The issue is about controlling people, he said. “If you look today at the policies of the San Francisco Police Department, it says throughout the entire message that it is delivering how to control people – because at the end of the day they are trying to control people to get them into a courtroom…”
He said, “What you see in the Mario Woods video is shocking.”
Looking at some stills, Ken Williams concluded that “Mr. Woods was most likely armed.” The officers there have their guns – some with live rounds and some less than lethal. “Each person that was there… has the discretion – very important word, discretion – to try to figure out what force they want to employ to gain control.”
He noted, looking at a still, that Mr. Woods was now in a squatting position. “A squatting position is kind of interesting – I can’t decide what Mr. Woods is deciding to do or not do,” he said. “But we would have to assume he’s not going to attack someone from a squatting position. That’s kind of difficult.”
He then stands up and puts his hands by his side. “He’s already been shot” at this point, “by less than lethal force. He’s already been sprayed with mace. Does that mean that the police have to stop trying to negotiate with Mr. Woods?” he asks. “Why didn’t they continue to try to use less than lethal force? That is not something that I’ve heard the police answer.”
He pointed out that the use of force policy “leaves a gap,” because the police have now have attempted the use of less than lethal force, so they can “check the box” and move to deadly force within the stipulations of the SF use of force policy. In this case, Mr. Woods walks and limps on the side of the building with the officers still communicating with him.
“The problem as we look at the video is we don’t have two police officers there trying to control a scene,” he said. “We have many police officers. So the question becomes in my mind – who’s the supervisor? Why isn’t the supervisor moving other people away who were public citizens to be out of harm’s way?”
He noted that they don’t have riot shields to create a barrier. They also don’t have de-escalation use of force training. He said one of the most powerful tools he had early in his career was his ability to speak to someone.
Mr. Williams said, “We have to change our mindset, we have to change the way we deal with people who are mentally ill, whether it’s temporary or permanent.” He noted that “not all people are being treated the same. Law enforcement is not an equal opportunity enforcer – it is selectively by discretion killing some but not all the same.”
He noted the culture in the police department as problematic with people who live in the community, as “somehow in the police department the racism that exists in the street, has found itself in the PD – and that’s a problem. Because they’re hired to protect and serve you, but if they’re clearly biased how can they do that effectively, how can do that fairly… and how is it that none or very few of these in all of the years that Chief (Greg) Suhr was the chief, in all of the years that people are looking to move up in his absence, how many complaints originate from people within the police department to correct the culture.” “They are responsible for the culture that says, black lives don’t matter.”
He noted in the photos that – left and right – officers have space and distance from those that they deem to be a threat.
The next photo shows officers shooting at Mario Woods. He noted, under the current use of force guidelines, “officers shoot to stop a threat, they don’t shoot to wound a threat, they aim center mass, wherever that is to stop the threat.”
“The issue of force has to be, from the public side, how do you prevent the next Mario Woods murder,” he said.
Ken Williams said when he was on the force, he would hear officers call out, “Signal 13,” which meant the officer was having a problem. He noted that, after a few years on the force, it was the same people calling out Signal 13 over and over again. “Why the heck are they always having problems and they need all of the other people to show up and bail them out?” he asked himself. “Why is that? They weren’t very good people. They weren’t very good at communication. Some of them would try to berate people, escalate, not deflate.”
“Because some people in law enforcement should not be in law enforcement, we have a problem in America where trying to fire an incompetent person in policing has to change if we’re going to have (reform),” he said, which includes the ability to “terminate people who are unfit and for those who commit crimes in that uniform, they’ve got to go to jail.”
On Tamir Rice, Ken Williams stated, “In the Tamir Rice video, the passenger is a rookie officer, inexperienced, the driver is a veteran officer, who is the training officer for the rookie.”
He noted that the veteran officer is the one “driving rapidly towards a person that the police are told may possess a gun.”
“When you do that, you lose your cover,” he said. He said they lose their ability to stop a distance away, using the vehicle for cover and yell to the person to show their hands. “You lose the effectiveness of being able to communicate.”
“Tamir Rice was shot, I think it was within 20 seconds,” he said.
“Another problem with this video, after he shoots him, does anyone see the police officers running to the aid of the individual now shot?” he said, noting a very typical lack of concern by police when a shooting does occur.
“Eric Garner, did anyone see the police officers running to the aid after choking him,” he asked. “That’s a problem. That goes to your mindset after you committed the act, and let’s say for instance, you’ve got it all wrong, where’s the compassion for the person you just shot?”
“Where is the community caretaker doctrine? Where is the concern for the body of the person that you exercised force against?” he continued.
He compared it to a scene at Camden, New Jersey.
“Part of the difference is that Camden, NJ, went through some reforms,” Ken Williams said. “Their use of force policies had to change.” They adopted certain de-escalation tactics in their newly-revised use of force policies. He said they recognized the fact that “it was better to go ahead and try to protect that life and not have a use of force or officer-involved shooting.” The new policy talked about creating space and negotiation.
He also talked about the need to change the culture: “The people who commit the wrong are promoted, the people who are potential whistleblowers inside these agencies are demoted and then forced out. This will never change.”
He told a story of a call at 2 am, a 16-year-old kid had a gun. He got separated from the other officers and managed to talk the kid into handing over the weapon. He said, he didn’t want the killing of a 16-year-old kid on his conscience.
“Did I take risk?” he asked. “Sure. But guess what, I can go outside this building and get hit by a car and take great risk crossing the street.”
“If you are looking at the job of police officer,” he said, noting that he has taken 70 guns off of people and that “I’m not talking from a desk duty job.”
“The issue is, the law is saying one thing but policies need to be tightened up to make sure all officers who may have legally the right to do something – that doesn’t necessarily mean going out executing people is the best choice, even if it’s lawful.”
Police agencies around the country are starting to agree with this approach. San Francisco is in the process of re-writing their rules on use of force. And nationally, the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) is in the process of a major revision to their use of force policy.
—David M. Greenwald reporting