Law enforcement coalition’s effort at de-escalation leaves a lot to be desired

In some cases, say police executives, it’s okay to shoot a fleeing suspect.

A member of the St. Louis County Police Department points his weapon in the direction of a group of protesters in Ferguson, MO. CREDIT: AP Photo/Jeff Roberson
A member of the St. Louis County Police Department points his weapon in the direction of a group of protesters in Ferguson, MO. CREDIT: AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

This week, a coalition of 11 law enforcement organizations, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), National Association of Police Organizations, released newly agreed upon standards for using lethal and non-lethal force. Notably, the groups agreed that de-escalation should be a policy priority nationwide. But the standards reinforce vague policies that protect cops who pull the trigger and make it easy for officers to make up reasons for using force after they’ve already done so.

According to the National Consensus Policy on Use of Force, published on Tuesday, “An officer shall use de-escalation techniques and other alternatives to higher levels of force consistent with his or her training whenever possible and appropriate before resorting to force and to reduce the need for force.” As long as de-escalation doesn’t jeopardize the safety of people in the surrounding area, including themselves, officers should use verbal and non-verbal cues — including “advisements, warnings, verbal persuasion, and tactical repositioning” — to slow things down.

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On its surface, the inclusion of de-escalation language in the consensus policy is a victory for mental health, disability, and police reform advocates who have long called on cops to show restraint before using force.

“We never said that de-escalation wasn’t a valid concept,” Jim Pasco, the executive director of the FOP, told the Washington Post. “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.”

But the policy also leaves a lot of room for officers to make deadly judgment calls.

The new guidelines enforce the legal standard — backed by the U.S. Supreme Court — that says officers can use force when it is “objectively reasonable” to do so. If civilian or police safety is threatened, officers can engage. But videos show that, time and time again, officers resort to lethal force when there is no immediate threat — a pattern that the Department of Justice has verified during its many investigations of law enforcement agencies nationwide.

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Racial bias and recklessness underscore many use of force incidents across the country, but officers who use weapons, tasers, and their bodies to subdue and kill civilians enjoy the privilege of “reasonable doubt,” making it near-impossible to charge or convict them for wrongdoing. The consensus policy still gives officers latitude to decide when things should be slowed down, instead of enforcing clear and comprehensive guidelines for doing so.

The policy also goes so far as to say that police may use deadly force “to prevent the escape of a fleeing subject when the officer has probable cause to believe that the person has committed, or intends to commit a felony involving serious bodily injury or death.” Choke holds are also fair game if “deadly force is authorized,” but the policy doesn’t specify who should make that decision.

The police organizations that convened to establish these guidelines want departments to stress their commitment to “[valuing] and [preserving] human life,” according to the Washington Post.

But if an officer wants to shoot, he or she can.

Pasco, who leads the largest police union in the country, said the agreement was “historic” in scope. But it may not do enough to build trust with the communities police serve — a priority that the IACP announced last year.

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“Events over the past several years have caused many to question the actions of our officers and has tragically undermined the trust that the public must and should have in their police departments,” Terry Cunningham, the IACP’s former president who called for a consensus policy, said last year. “For our part, the first step in this process is for law enforcement and the IACP to acknowledge and apologize for the actions of the past and the role that our profession has played in society’s historical mistreatment of communities of color.”