Austin police have enacted a new policy that requires officers to first try to tamp down a volatile situation before turning to more aggressive means, including using their guns, batons or Tasers.
The move comes amid a national effort among law enforcement aimed at curtailing violent clashes between officers and suspects.
According to a new de-escalation policy recently put in place by interim Police Chief Brian Manley, officers should use “techniques to stabilize the situation and reduce the immediacy of the threat, so that more options and resources are available to bring about a successful resolution to an encounter with a non-compliant subject.”
If an officer ultimately deems force necessary, supervisors will now decide whether he or she considered options to de-escalate the situation. Failure to abide by the new rules could result in disciplinary actions similar to other infractions, including anything from a reprimand to termination.
The policy is the result of a monthslong collaboration between police officials and community groups. Leaders for the grass-roots Austin Justice Coalition submitted proposed language to the department last fall after researching policies among cities nationally.
“They came to us with concerns and ideas about our policies,” Manley told the American-Statesman and KVUE-TV. “What I’m proud of is that we took their feedback, we took it seriously, and we looked for opportunities to implement changes they brought forward.”
Manley and his command staff also consulted with other experts nationally and city attorneys before adopting the new policy late last month.
The new regulations come as part of an effort by law enforcement and watchdog groups nationally to try to curtail violence involving police.
Chicago’s police department calls for the use of force as the last resort. A Los Angeles Police Department policy tells officers they must try to de-escalate a situation “whenever it is safe and reasonable to do so.” The Dallas Police Department is considered a leader in the de-escalation movement.
Traditionally, law enforcement officers have been trained to control situations by using a commanding voice and giving orders. Advocates of de-escalation techniques say that such as demeanor can inflame situations, and they believe potentially explosive conflicts can sometimes be defused by slowing down the action, moving away from the suspect or engaging in conversation.
Some law enforcement experts have expressed concerns that such policies might cause officers to stall their responses, possibly putting them in danger.
Manley said he recognizes that concern but added, “Nothing in this policy delays or prohibits an appropriate response.”
Joseph, King cases highlighted need
In Austin, some community leaders began pressing the department to develop more policies about how and when officers can use force after the shooting death of David Joseph, a naked, unarmed teen, in February 2016.
Former Police Chief Art Acevedo later fired officer Geoffrey Freeman, saying he used unreasonable force in the shooting in North Austin. Acevedo said Freeman missed chances to possibly de-escalate the situation and that Freeman was not suited for police work because his first instinct was to reach for his gun when Joseph ran toward him.
Community leaders also contended that Freeman did not take the opportunity to try to slow his response, including waiting for backup, which they say could have possibly saved Joseph’s life.
The city settled a lawsuit in February with Joseph’s family for $3.25 million — the largest settlement in the city’s history after a police shooting. Freeman said he shot because he feared Joseph could have wrestled his gun away from him, putting his life in danger.
The June 2015 arrest of Breaion King also highlighted the need for a policy requiring officers to be more measured in their responses, community leaders said. King, an elementary school teacher, was stopped for speeding, and when she did not immediately comply with officer Bryan Richter’s commands, he was seen on video pulling her from the car and throwing her to the ground. The video received national attention.
Last year, the American-Statesman published a series of stories that highlighted about 300 instances statewide in which civilians died in police custody. The newspaper found that in many instances, officers appeared to inflame — or at least did not defuse — what began as minor cases that ended in a suspect’s death.
Manley said officers for years have been trained in how to de-escalate an incident, and expected to use those skills. But the department had no written policy requiring them to do so. Adding such language to the department’s use-of-force policy “gives it the level of attention it deserves,” he said.
“It highlights to the officers the importance of using de-escalation techniques when appropriate,” he said. “By spelling that out in a policy, they understand that is the expectation.”
According to the policy, officers must try to assess the potential use-of-force encounters and “whether the officer believes the search, arrest or transportation must be taken immediately.”
“After an officer has gathered what they believe to be sufficient information … they shall consider whether de-escalation is appropriate,” the policy said.
Officers are instructed to consider whether the arrest of a suspect must happen immediately and whether the officer can handle the arrest solo. They are also told to consider de-escalation tactics that may include summoning backup, including including from those with special mental health skills, and using “verbal persuasion” to try to get a subject to calm down “and promote rational decision.”
“Listen to the subject’s side of the story and permit them to express frustration,” the policy said. “Explain what the officer is doing, what the subject can do and what needs to happen. Advise the subject of the consequences for noncompliance.”
Chas Moore, who leads the justice coalition, predicts the policy will decrease the number of shootings involving police officers.
“There is not a need for fatal use of force a large majority of time unless there is just an alarming, apparent call for it, where an officer’s life is at risk and he or she actually fears losing their life,” he said.
Sukyi McMahon, chairwoman of the coalition’s board, said she was pleased police officials were receptive to their policy suggestions.
“This was an instance where the community was heard and our concerns were addressed,” she said. “This was a collaboration toward making a better policy that came to fruition through a lot of hard work.”
‘Proceed with caution,’ expert warns
Although community groups and some law enforcement leaders are increasingly supportive of such policies, some policing experts are slow to embrace such regulations and see them as potentially restrictive and dangerous.
There’s a difference between urging de-escalation and mandating it, said Brian Landers, a Wisconsin-based use-of-force consultant. In fact, he said, it can threaten officers’ safety because they feel they are beholden to a policy and might hesitate to use force when they should not wait.
“I’m well aware of situations where officers have failed to use force because of de-escalation mandates and got hurt,” Landers said.
De-escalation training is useful, he said. But the move to formalize policies across the country stems from political pressure, not empirical evidence that it works better than traditional policing methods, he said. Many cases require split-second decisions and if officers are afraid to use their discretion, they could be put in dangerous positions, he said.
“I hope that the city leaders and elected officials proceed with caution,” Landers said.
Ken Casaday, president of the Austin police union, said, “The expanded policy provides a detailed explanation of the many factors that go into an officer’s decision to use force as well as the steps we should take to avoid the use of force in the scope of our duties. But these ideas are not new. They are consistent with the training officers have received for over a decade.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story linked to a draft policy submitted to the city by the Austin Justice Coalition that differs from the policy adopted by the Austin Police Department. That link has been deleted. This story has also been edited to more accurately reflect the policy.