VIEWPOINTS: De-escalation policy could help mend community trust

It is common in Austin and elsewhere around the country for a police officer to grab for a gun in a volatile situation. Although officers are trained to de-escalate tension, most police departments don’t require they make use of that training. That will no longer be the case in Austin.

Joining a national movement to end violent confrontations between officers and suspects, the Austin Police Department has enacted a policy that mandates officers to calm volatile situations before reaching for their guns, batons or Tasers. The measure is long overdue.

The new policy is a step in improving police-community relations frayed in recent years by local high-profile use-of-force cases, including some that went viral. Memories of cases in which people have been injured or killed still linger. Like the 2015 violent arrest of elementary schoolteacher Breaion King after she did not immediately comply with officer Bryan Richter’s command. Or the 2013 shooting death of Larry Jackson, who was shot in the back of the neck by then-detective Charles Kleinert during a foot chase.

UPDATE: Officer in Breaion King case fired amid new force complaint.

To be more transparent, the Austin Police Department should consider creating a public database that tracks cases where officers failed to comply with the new policy and give details on how those officers were punished. Showing that officers are being held accountable would go a long way in earning a community’s trust.

The policy is the product of a collaboration between the Austin Police Department and leaders for the grassroots Austin Justice Coalition. It includes measures long advocated for by civil rights groups such as the Texas Civil Rights Project and the Austin branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

According to Austin’s new de-escalation policy, after an officer assesses the situation, he or she is required to use communication 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 noncompliant subject.”

Nothing in the policy prohibits an appropriate officer response — including lethal force — in a dangerous situation that warrants such force, interim Police Chief Brian Manley has said.

CITY HALL: New Austin police policy emphasizes alternatives to using force.

Most promising in real change is the accountability the policy will provide. If an officer ultimately deems force necessary, supervisors will now decide whether the officer properly considered de-escalation options to defuse the situation. If it is determined that the officer failed to abide by the new de-escalation rules, he or she could face disciplinary action, including anything from a reprimand to termination, the American-Statesman’s Tony Plohetski and Andrea Ball reported.

It’s the kind of policy community groups support — and law enforcement leaders are more willing to adopt. Police departments in Los Angeles, New York, Baltimore and Camden, N.J., also require them.

De-escalating a volatile situation not only can save lives, it can also save money and ultimately, build public trust.

Consider the 2016 shooting death of 17-year-old David Joseph. In that case, then-officer Geoffrey Freeman shot Joseph, who was unarmed and naked, as the teen approached him. Internal investigations determined that Freeman used unreasonable force in the shooting and missed chances to possibly de-escalate the situation. Former Police Chief Art Acevedo later fired Freeman.

The incident cost the city $3.25 million in a lawsuit filed by the Joseph family. It was the largest police shooting settlement in the city’s history.

Though studies suggest there should be a nationwide de-escalation policy, some in law enforcement disagree. Experts like Brian Landers, a Wisconsin-based use-of-force consultant, see such policies as potentially restrictive and dangerous.

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The move to formalize policies across the country stems from political pressure, not empirical evidence that it works better than traditional policing methods, he told the American-Statesman. That’s because until recently, most law enforcement agencies weren’t willing to track or provide use-of-force data.

The Dallas Police Department’s experience with de-escalation tells us tamping down the intensity in a volatile situation works. Under former Police Chief David O. Brown, Dallas’ de-escalation policy helped transform the city into a national symbol of community policing.

During his tenure, Brown – who retired last year – called for increased use-of-force training that emphasizes de-escalation for all officers and enacted new guidelines for reporting encounters involving the use of force. As a result, excessive-force complaints decreased from 81 in 2012 to 21 in 2017, according to a Dallas police data. More dramatically, the number of shootings involving police dropped from 23 in 2012 to 3 in 2017.

Determined to gain the community’s trust, Brown also called for more transparency in use-of-force incidents and established a website that, since 2014, publishes a trove of data on police-involved shootings going back 10 years. The Austin Police Department would do well to replicate those efforts here.

No one is suggesting that officers not use force if there is no alternative; it is the abuse of force that should no longer be tolerated. Civil rights organizations and citizens have long advocated for as much. Austin was right to finally answer that call.

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