A proposed Asheville Police Department policy hashed out with substantial citizen input could mark a change in the way officers handle volatile situations, proponents say. If the policy is adopted as expected, officers will have to explain how they approached the situation and what they did to try to calm things down before resorting to violence — or, in extreme circumstances, what prevented them from trying to de-escalate.
Already, the groundbreaking cooperative process used to develop the draft policy has gotten high marks from many of those involved.
In the wake of the July 2 killing of Jai “Jerry” Williams by police Sgt. Tyler Radford, the Racial Justice Coalition and the APD formed the Community Police Policy Work Group. Over the course of several months last fall, Police Department staffers and a cross section of community members worked to craft a new use-of-force policy.
The proposed change comes at time when departments all over the country are experiencing increased scrutiny over the use of force, particularly lethal force. Unhappy that the department’s current policy did not require officers to use de-escalation techniques first, the Racial Justice Coalition, made up of various community groups, approached the APD about changing the policy. The State Bureau of Investigation later cleared Radford of any legal wrongdoing in the Williams case.
The work group got off to a rocky start, says participant James Lee, who represented the coalition (see “Don’t Force It,” Sept. 7, 2016, Xpress). But Lee says he was pleasantly surprised by the process and by law enforcement’s willingness to listen, noting, “It was a huge benefit to the community to be able to go through it.”
The new policy, developed with the help of facilitators from the Vera Institute of Justice, aims to strike a balance in protecting both police officers and the general public. According to its website, the New York City-based nonprofit’s mission is “To drive change. To urgently build and improve justice systems that ensure fairness, promote safety and strengthen communities.”
The institute’s final report had high praise for the Asheville work group, pointing out that while police departments nationwide “are increasingly getting community input on draft policies, the process of actively engaging a wide range of community stakeholders — at the beginning and throughout the development of the policy — is unique and a model for other jurisdictions.” Lead facilitator Hassan Aden said, “This is the first process for such a policy that completely gives community a voice and power in terms of how they are policed.” The approach, he noted, is particularly appropriate in cases like this, because a use-of-force policy regulates the single greatest threat to community members from police.
On Nov. 21, after reviewing the draft, the work group signed off on the policy. “It was very collaborative,” says Aden, “and not without dissent. There were areas … [where] certain members of the community didn’t agree with certain language. Sometimes the Police Department didn’t. And we just worked through that and got it to a point where everyone was happy with the language.”
Still, the work group wasn’t starting from scratch. The new policy is based on “Guiding Principles on Use of Force,” a March 2016 report produced by the Police Executive Research Forum. The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit conducts research on critical police issues. The work group also looked at recently updated policies from Seattle and Minneapolis, which APD Chief Tammy Hooper says reflect similar best practices.
“Guiding Principles” challenges conventional thinking about police use of force, emphasizing the sanctity of life as well as the need for continual improvement in policy, practice and training, including consideration of community expectations. The report stresses alternative approaches such as proportional use of force, de-escalation of tense situations, and trying to slow things down rather than making hasty decisions. Officers should work together, train together, hold one another accountable and try to build public trust. Any use of force should be documented thoroughly. “Guiding Principles” also pays special attention to how mental illness and other extenuating circumstances can affect interactions with police.
Even without the community input, says Hooper, the APD might have produced a similar policy, but “I don’t think it would have the depth that it does.” The group, she says, had strong feelings about certain kinds of language — especially what members saw as hackneyed catchphrases and empty legal jargon.
And though the APD is taking public comment on the proposed policy through Jan. 31, Hooper says she doesn’t expect it to change much. The chief hopes to implement something fairly close to the current draft within the next six months.
The draft policy’s opening sentence sets the tone for what follows.
“The Asheville Police Department is committed to preserving and protecting all lives,” it states, “and to upholding our community’s values while inspiring mutual respect and public trust.” To Lee, that displays sensitivity to community concerns. “The fact that that’s at the very beginning, where people are more likely to read it, is really powerful,” he points out.
Work group members, notes Aden, didn’t need to be experts on police policy — that was his job. They were there to give their 2 cents’ worth on how the community wants to hold its Police Department accountable. “We had great input from everybody that was a participant in this,” says Hooper, “even people that don’t necessarily oftentimes agree with the police. They gave their time and effort to help us produce something that’s valuable and valid.”
Work group member Beth Maczka, the CEO of the local YWCA, says she witnessed genuine efforts by stakeholders from all backgrounds to look out for one another’s interests. “I heard compassion and understanding from both sides: community members who expressed real concern for officer safety, and officers expressing the desire for deeper connection with the community they serve,” says Maczka, who also co-chairs the Racial Justice Coalition. Several participants said reviewing the policy had heightened their awareness of the dangers officers face.
Giving work group members a real say in shaping the document may have encouraged them to consider more perspectives, notes Hooper, because they felt a shared responsibility for creating a policy that meets the needs of both the police and the community at large.
De-escalating volatile situations
The most substantial change in the almost totally reworked policy, says Hooper, is the addition of clear language about de-escalation. Anytime a police officer reports having used force, he or she will also have to document the attempts to de-escalate the situation first.
Like the revised Minneapolis and Seattle policies, the APD’s document requires officers to consider, before using force, whether a person’s resistance or lack of compliance might result from a medical condition, mental impairment, developmental disability, language barrier, the influence of drugs or alcohol or a behavioral crisis. But Asheville’s draft policy goes further, adding perceived age to the list. Aden says he’s particularly pleased about that because, elsewhere in the country, children have been hurt or killed by police. He says he doesn’t know of another policy anywhere that includes this criterion.
“While the use of force remains a legal police option,” notes the Vera Institute’s final report, “policing experts agree that utilizing de-escalation increases the chances of gaining suspect compliance before force becomes necessary.” Both the current and proposed APD policies allow even lethal force in cases where it’s warranted and consistent with state and federal law. Under the APD’s new policy, however, any officer using force will have some explaining to do.
Rondell Lance, president of the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, says that while including community members in the process was important for building trust, he doesn’t see major practical differences in how officers will handle the harsh situations police sometimes face. “Some people, I think, have got the idea that all of a sudden, the police are just going to roll over,” he says. “They’ve still got to do their job; they’ve got to protect their self. People don’t want to go to jail; people don’t want to be caught. They’re still going to fight, they’re going to kick, they’re going to do everything they can do to hurt the officers.”
The new policy, says Lance, will help officers know what’s expected of them, but real change will require having experienced officers on the street, improving their working conditions with things like shorter shifts and giving them more support — both within and outside the department.
Hooper, meanwhile, is adamant about the need for thorough training before the changes take effect. “The policy cannot be implemented until the officers are trained,” she says. “That’s going to be a big focus for us in the first quarter of this year, so they have a complete understanding about what the expectations are and how this changes what we want them to do.”
Work group member Curry First, a retired civil rights attorney and activist with Elders Fierce for Justice, agrees. “There is much work to do with the overarching issue of training the officers on the new policy and developing a culture around it so the policy is accepted and supported,” he says. He’d also like to see the work group, with guidance from the Vera Institute, periodically review both the policy and the department’s actual performance, especially concerning de-escalation.
Work group participants recommended training all APD officers in de-escalation policy, community resilience/trauma, mental health/community wellness, critical decision-making, nonphysical response strategies, and use of tone and language. And the department, Hooper notes, already does “implicit bias” training that considers the perspectives of vulnerable communities.
In addition, the APD has sent three officers to New Orleans for ICAT training (an acronym for “integrating communications, assessment and tactics”). Developed by the Police Executive Research Forum, the approach is “designed to fill a critical gap in training police officers in how to respond to volatile situations in which subjects are behaving erratically and often dangerously but do not possess a firearm,” the group’s website explains.
APD accreditation manager Hannah Silberman drafted the new policy, based on the documents provided to the work group, and Aden says she “did a fantastic job.” The resulting draft, he says, is easy to read and easy to understand. Shorter than the current version, its more concise language could help officers operate in the spirit of the policy.
Step by step
Clearly, the process of developing the policy was a public relations win for Hooper and her department. Some of the APD’s most vocal critics have already endorsed the draft.
But almost everyone interviewed for this story, including Hooper, agreed that while the new policy is a positive step, the department needs to demonstrate continued vigilance and work on improving relationships with the community.
Curry First, for example, says that though he was satisfied with both the process and the result, the key question is whether the APD holds its officers accountable. “Inevitably in a large department,” says First, “there will be violations of the policy, and the department’s investigation, review and discipline [in response to those] violations will be a further test of how well the department is serving our community.”
As CEO of the Asheville Housing Authority, work group member Gene Bell is very familiar with the strained relationships between public housing residents and police. And though he was pleased with both the process and the draft document that came out of it, Bell points out that a policy can go only so far in addressing things like distrust, ill will and bias. “If the intent of the policy is to not have a police officer use too much force,” he says, “is that a policy issue, or is that a human issue?” Simply having a policy on the books, he maintains, won’t stop individual officers from behaving in a certain way, any more than having speed-limit signs or murder laws on the books prevents those crimes.
Maczka shares Bell’s concern but says she’s hopeful because of the way it’s reflected in the written policy. “A lot of places have policies, and people still get shot by officers,” she says. “But I believe our community will be safer because of the combination of policies and the training that the chief is committed to focusing on.”
To view the draft use-of-force policy and the Vera Institute’s report, visit avl.mx/3b3. To submit comments or questions, go to avl.mx/3b2. The deadline for public comment is 10 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 31.