The Denver Police Department is rewriting its use-of-force policy to align it with the community’s changing expectations for how officers handle volatile situations and to reflect progressive policies recommended by national policing experts.
The new policy will shift the department’s focus from telling officers what is legally allowed when using force against citizens to one that encourages officers to use the minimum amount of force necessary. It also will provide specific scenarios and a decisionmaking model to guide officers on how they should react to those situations, Chief Robert White told The Denver Post during an interview on Wednesday [October 26].
“I’m of the opinion it’s just not good enough for officers to take legal actions, but they also need to make sure those actions are absolutely necessary,” White said. “That’s where we are going.”
Across the nation, police departments and their officers are under scrutiny when it comes to shooting suspects and even when deciding to use stun guns or to punch and kick people. Demands for change have followed a series of high-profile police killings of unarmed minorities in Ferguson, Mo., Charleston, S.C., a Minneapolis suburb and elsewhere.
As a response to eroding trust between police and their communities, policing experts have recommended law enforcement agencies periodically review their policies and change use-of-force policies to honor the sanctity of life and to emphasize de-escalation.
Earlier this year, the Denver Sheriff Department announced an overhaul of its use-of-force policy that reflected those recommendations. Its new policy set a standard of “reasonable and necessary” force that is more restrictive than the standard set by state and federal law.
The sheriff’s policy was rewritten as part of a massive reform of the department and involved dozens of people from outside the department.
However, the police department’s rewrite is an internal process, despite calls for others to be involved.
Independent Monitor Nick Mitchell and the Citizen Oversight Board, which governs his office, have sent letters asking for a seat at the table as the policy is being written.
Lisa Calderon, co-chair of the Colorado Latino Forum’s Denver chapter and heavily involved in local law enforcement issues, has shared her frustration over the lack of outside participation with Stephanie O’Malley, Denver’s executive director of safety.
But White insists he and his staff are forming a progressive policy on their own.
“I get hired as a chief of police to create policies for the police department. That’s kind of part of what I get paid to do,” he said.
It has been important for the same people to be involved in all of the policy rewrites because so many provisions in the 746-page operations manual are interconnected, Deputy Chief Matt Murray said.
“They can’t stand alone,” he said. “They all need to complement each other. So the people who are writing one need to write the other so they’re not in conflict. You can’t have a committee write every policy unless it’s the same committee for the rest of time. All policies have to work together.”
The command staff is almost finished with a first draft, which will be distributed to the Office of the Independent Monitor, rank-and-file officers and community leaders, White said.
Each of those parties will be given a chance to offer input before a final version is written, he said.
White said he understands the use-of-force policy is a concern to the community, and he pledged to listen to any ideas given by the independent monitor and others.
“I will seriously take into consideration any feedback that he or anyone else gives us, and if it is consistent with the culture of this community and our ability to be able to implement it and to incorporate it into our final version, then I will do that,” White said.
To write the policy, Denver police leaders consulted with 14 other departments, including San Diego, Houston, Kansas City, Mo., and Seattle, and they considered recommendations from the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing and the Police Executive Research Forum, a think tank on whose board of directors White serves.
The Denver police command staff routinely review policies to make sure they are up-to-date with the latest trends. About two years ago, the department started rewriting its entire operations manual.
Already this year, the department has added a section to its operations manual that requires officers to de-escalate situations when reasonable and practical. That, too, has been a focus in national policing models.
The department also changed its policy on how officers respond to suspects after force has been used.
Officers now have a “duty to render aid” after they shoot or use physical force on a suspect once they determine it is safe to do so, White said.
The department was criticized by community members in 2015 after officers failed to provide immediate medical aid to Jessica Hernandez, a teenager shot and killed by police while driving in an alley in northeast Denver.
The bottom line for the new use-of-force policy will be its insistence that officers use the minimum amount of force necessary to resolve situations, White said. A timeline for training officers and holding them accountable under the policy has not been set.
White said he expects some push-back within the ranks.
“I’m not saying every police officer has an issue with this,” White said. “Some will support it wholeheartedly, and some won’t be comfortable with it.”
Still, White is confident he is doing the right thing.
“It was not something where I woke up in the morning and said, ‘OK, today we need to do this,’ without having a basis for where it needs to go and what it needs to be,” White said. “This is based on a lot of work and a lot of research.”
This article was originally featured in The Denver Post.