Ed. note: This story covers the Denver Police Department. You can read about the Aurora Police Department’s results and response here.
Police departments with more restrictive use of force policies kill fewer people per capita, even accounting for other factors like the city’s crime rate and the size of minority communities, according to a new study from Campaign Zero, a group founded by activists who want to reduce police violence.
Campaign Zero’s Use of Force Project examined policies in 91 police departments in the country’s 100 largest cities, including Denver and Aurora, to look for eight particular provisions, and found that each additional provision was associated with a 15 percent decrease in fatal use of force incidents.
This is the third report from Campaign Zero, which was founded by activists DeRay Mckesson, Samuel Sinyangwe, Johnetta Elzie and Brittany Packnett. They’ve also looked at police union contracts and body camera policies. Their goal is to use research to identify the policy changes that might make a difference in how police use violence.
So how did Denver do?
Campaign Zero gave Denver credit for four policies, better than average, and the city ranked 28th highest in per capita police shootings.
Aurora got credit for three policies and ranked eighth in per capita shootings by police. Campaign Zero said Aurora deserves “scrutiny” for the number of police shootings there. You can read more about those findings and the Aurora Police Department’s response here.
When you look at the number of shootings in the report, keep in mind you’re looking at an 18-month period, not a single calendar year, and that the per capita calculation uses a “per million residents” calculation, rather than per 100,000.
Officers in Aurora killed six people and officers in Denver killed seven during the 18-month period of the study. All of those shootings were found to be legally justified.
Both departments dispute the study’s methods.
Officials with both departments disputed how Campaign Zero graded their use of force policies and felt that their ranking for use of force incidents was misleading.
Studies like Campaign Zero’s Use of Force Project come up with criteria and then assign codes to policies based on that criteria. There will always be gray areas, and policies have to be assigned to one category or another. So any one department can raise objections about how they’ve been classified, but the correlation identified in the report is probably there.
Denver Deputy Chief Matt Murray told me “Culture eats policy for lunch,” and I have no reason to think he’s wrong. Does the presence of certain provisions in use of force policies change officer behavior enough to reduce fatal use of force? Or do departments with a more progressive culture adopt more restrictive policies and have fewer fatal use of force incidents? The study identifies a correlation but can’t answer causation.
That said, many of the policies identified by Campaign Zero come from law enforcement “best practices,” like the Police Executive Research Forum’s Guiding Principles on Use of Force and the The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. These are ideas endorsed by the police officials who have spent the most time thinking about what sometimes goes wrong in policing.
And of the policies that Denver and Aurora lacked during the study period, some are under consideration and may be adopted or even have been adopted recently.
These are the eight provisions that Campaign Zero’s Use of Force Project wants to see every department adopt:
- Require officers to de-escalate situations, when possible, before using force.
- Use of force continuum or matrix that defines or limits the types of force and specific weapons that can be used to respond to specific levels of resistance.
- Restrict chokeholds and strangleholds, including carotid restraints, to situations where deadly force is authorized or prohibit them altogether.
- Require officers to give a verbal warning, when possible, before using deadly force.
- Prohibit officers from shooting at people in moving vehicles unless the person poses a deadly threat by means other than the vehicle itself.
- Require officers to exhaust all other reasonable alternatives before resorting to using deadly force.
- Require officers to intervene to stop another officer from using excessive force.
- Require officers to report both uses of force and threats or attempted uses of force, including instances where an officer intentionally points a firearm at a civilian. (This is called “comprehensive reporting” for short.)
The average police department had just three of the eight provisions, and none had all eight.
Three policies were associated with larger reductions in killings of civilians by police officers. Comprehensive reporting requirements and requiring officers to exhaust all other means each were associated with a 25 percent reduction. Banning chokeholds and strangleholds accounted for a 22 percent reduction.
The study also found that officers were less likely to be assaulted when departments had more restrictive policies, calling into question a common claim from police unions that officers need more latitude for their own safety.
Murray, Denver’s deputy chief, takes serious issue with how Campaign Zero categorized Denver’s policy.
Here’s what the city got credit for: Requiring de-escalation, employing a use of force continuum, requiring a warning before shooting and exhausting all other means before shooting.
Here’s what Denver didn’t get credit for: Banning chokeholds and strangleholds, restricting shooting into a moving vehicle, duty to intervene and comprehensive reporting.
If you look at the Denver Police Department’s use of force policy, you’ll see a reporting requirement and a restriction on shooting into moving vehicles. That last provision is a relatively recent change, adopted after several high-profile incidents in which police shot into moving vehicles and killed people.
However, Campaign Zero didn’t give Denver credit for either.
The group objected to an exception within the prohibition on shooting at moving vehicles: “It is understood that the policy in regards to discharging a firearm at a moving vehicle, like all written policies, may not cover every situation. Any deviations shall be examined rigorously on a case-by-case basis.” Independent Monitor Nicholas Mitchell also made note of that provision in his semi-annual report from 2015, urging caution “to avoid allowing the exception to swallow the rule.”
Also, officers don’t have to report if they draw their weapon on a person but don’t fire. Samuel Sinyangwe, author of the study, said departments that require reporting of this act have fewer shootings.
When police shoot someone, “it is always preceded by an officer entering the situation guns drawn,” he said. “What we learn is that when officers have to report, they do it much less.”
Denver’s policy allows carotid compression — reducing the flow of blood to the brain — by officers who have been trained in the technique and against people who are “combative or physically resistive.”
Murray has a larger objection, though, than going point-by-point through the use of force policy.
“There are a lot of people who think they have all the answers about how to fix problems with the police,” he said. “A lot of people believe that if you just write the rules correctly, people will do what you want. We work in a really complex world, and you can’t write rules that cover every situation.”
Denver police had 531,594 calls for service in 2015, and officers shot 10 people, four of whom died. In that same time, 158 officers were assaulted, and 73 people filed complaints about excessive force.
“That’s four too many, but put it in perspective,” Murray said. “It’s not a rampant situation where police are just rolling up and shooting people for no reason.”
Sinyangwe called Denver a “middle-ground” city among those studied, not the worst by any means but still with room for improvement.
And that last part isn’t something the department really disputes. New training procedures focus more on de-escalation and new, more sophisticated simulator gives officers more opportunities to role play talking people down.
Denver is also in the process of re-working its use of force policy, along with the rest of the department’s policies. This has been a slow process that started years ago and stalled out a few times, and there’s also no firm deadline for when it will be done, Murray said. However, the department is past the research phase and is now debating internally which changes it should adopt.
A “duty to intervene” may or may not make the list. Murray said officers train on what to do if a colleague seems to be losing control of himself, but putting it in policy carries legal implications if an officer fails to act.
“We train officers to have code words and look for someone getting too excited,” Murray said. “If I’m with another officer and I see he’s getting out of control, I have an ethical and moral obligation to do something. Should it be policy? That’s a different question.”
Denver probably won’t require officers to report when they point their gun at someone because, Murray said, it doesn’t come up as a complaint very often. He objected to Campaign Zero using the term “civilians” for the people on the other side of an officer’s weapon. They’re people committing crimes.
The new use of force policy from the Sheriff’s Department does include a duty to intervene “if practical” in inappropriate use of force and to report immediately if they are unable to intervene. It also expands the use of force reporting requirements to include drawing weapons (not a situation that comes up very often for deputies, granted, because most of them work in the jail) and handcuffing someone outside of routine transport situations, that is, when they’re handcuffed because they were non-compliant in some way.
Unlike the Denver Sheriff’s Department, the police department has not invited members of the public or the Office of the Independent Monitor to participate in the process of re-writing its policies. Murray said that’s because the police don’t have the extensive problems the sheriff’s department had. The department does have community sentiment in mind, he said, but the community is broader than the activists calling for more accountability.
“Not all of our customers are unhappy. Some of them are just loud,” Murray said.
It’s worth noting that regardless of whether the Denver police are better than the sheriff’s department by some metric, lots of people are concerned about how the department deploys force, and the department faces lawsuits over several shootings deemed lawful by the Denver District Attorney’s Office.
There’s one more Colorado city in the top 100. What about Colorado Springs?
Colorado Springs ranked 50th in per capita police-involved killings, but its policy wasn’t included in the analysis because portions were redacted.
Colorado Springs police Sgt. Tim Stankey said the department’s legal advisor found two sections to be “tactical information that is sensitive.” One of those was the definitions section. For what it’s worth, the Police Executive Research Forum, a group of police chiefs who work on best practices, recommend use of force policies be clear, concise and available to the public. Stankey said Colorado Springs is in the process of updating its policy.
Sinyangwe said he hopes the report will contribute to more departments taking a second look at use of force policies.
“This identifies clear solutions that reduce police shootings and potentially police deaths as well,” he said. “We hope these become standard policies.”
You can read the entire Use of Force Project report here.
This story has been updated to add references to community complaints about police use of force.
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