We have seen it again and again. The latest example is the newly-emerged video and audio from the shooting of Dazion Flenaugh – where the officer, originally calm and collected and putting the disturbed man in his police car – escalates the situation, calling Mr. Flenaugh a “freak” and then later telling a citizen to hit him with a baseball bat, saying that “that’ll mellow him out.”
The Flenaugh case is only the latest where police have failed to de-escalate a situation, until they eventually reach the point of the use of deadly force. Often investigations and DAs – as is the case of Flenaugh – will call the use of force reasonable, given the presence of weapons, but that begs an important question – are police doing all they can to “de-escalate” the situation?
The Washington Post this week reports, “A group of 11 national police organizations issued a new model policy Tuesday for police departments nationwide that for the first time incorporates the concept of ‘de-escalation’ when an officer is facing the choice of using deadly force.”
The new policy also now recommends that police departments declare, “It is the policy of this law enforcement agency to value and preserve human life.”
This is a critical step. A report from Chicago Police Accountability Task Force, last April, concluded that there is a widely “held belief the police have no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color.”
The press conference last week on the Flenaugh case seemed to reach a similar conclusion.
Mark Harris, attorney for the family, explained that when Dazion Flenaugh was bleeding out on the sidewalk, “he lay dying in the street, there was no attempt to revive him, there was attempt to assess whether he was dead or alive. He had an involuntary jerk and they thought he – they were getting ready to open fire on him again.
“This is just inhumane, you wouldn’t treat an animal this way,” he said. “Then they tried to cuff him and there was a discussion as to whether they should cuff him behind or in front. He’s lying on the street, bleeding out and these inhumane folks are having this kind of discussion.”
The new policy, however, has problems, It allows the firing of warning shots and firing at moving vehicles under some circumstances – actions which most police departments prohibit.
The Post reports that, as a result, “several large police groups, including two national sheriffs’ associations and the Major Cities Chiefs Association declined to sign on to the policy after participating in the development process, citing objections to certain aspects such as warning shots.”
The effort was a collaboration between the IACP (International Association of Chiefs of Police) and FOP (the national Fraternal Order of Police officers) “to push back on a new ‘30 Guiding Principles’ for use of police force issued in early 2016 by the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based think tank supported by large city police chiefs which called for police emphasis on the ‘sanctity of life’ for everyone in a critical incident, not just the officers.”
The key new language moves beyond the seminal Supreme Court case of Graham v. Connor, that established a reasonable officer standard for police shootings, based on whether actions are “objectively reasonable” in light of the circumstances seen by the officer. It was under these standards that the DA in Sacramento determined that the shooting of Dazion Flenaugh was reasonable.
The new policy on de-escalation states, “An officer shall use de-escalation techniques and other alternatives to higher levels of force consistent with his training whenever possible and appropriate before resorting to force and to reduce the need for force.”
Among other things, “That means creating space between an officer and a subject, talking and trying to calm a subject, waiting for backups and supervisors to arrive and trying to resolve a situation without gunfire, when the subject does not have a gun.”
Last spring, use of force expert Ken Williams talked about the Mario Woods shooting in 2015 in San Francisco. Looking at the photos, he noted that officers had space and distance from those they deemed to be a threat. Yet they shot Mr. Woods anyway.
He compared that to policies put in place in 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.
But this policy is controversial. The Post quotes one deputy association that called the policy, “a ridiculous piece of claptrap.” The joint statement from the IACP and FOP said, “We cannot reasonably expect law enforcement officers to walk away from potentially dangerous situations and individuals in the hope that those situations resolve themselves without further harm being done.”
However, the 11 policy groups looked at de-escalation from a different standpoint. They see it as “a necessary part of what we do. It should be in the policy.” He said the labor organizations at the table “talked about the challenges of what officers see on the street. Ultimately, it all came back to, we get it. If we have the opportunity to de-escalate, we should. And they agreed with that.”
Fraternal Order of Police executive director Jim Pasco added, “We never said that de-escalation wasn’t a valid concept. We just said it’s not something that can be deployed in every instance, it’s not the be-all and end-all in the options in the use of force continuum. Every police officer in the U.S. is taught about de-escalation in rookie school. This is not new news.”
Perry Tarrant, an assistant police chief in Seattle and president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE), said escalation was “in line with 21st century policing,” as recommended by a policing task force convened by President Obama in 2015. “Within that scheme,” Mr. Tarrant said, “most organizations that are working toward 21st century policing have acknowledged the value of de-escalation and reducing the number of police-involved shootings.”
Clearly, the profession is moving in the right direction here, but it is going to take a long time to move officers toward new changes.
—David M. Greenwald reporting